What happens when a parent puts their dream first and their family second? Until recently, most of the films exploring that question were about fathers, perhaps because the idea of a mother not prioritizing her kids was too disturbing. Movie moms tend to be more like Marion (Julie Walters) in the UK drama Wild Rose, who explains to her grown daughter that, once she had a child, she simply transferred all her hopes and dreams to the next generation.
But the next generation didn't turn out as Marion hoped. Her daughter, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), has two kids by the time she's out of her teens and precious little interest in mothering them. While Marion dreamed modestly of college and pulling herself out of the working class, Rose-Lynn is convinced she was put on Earth to be a country star. "I should have been born American," she says with blithe assurance.
We meet Rose-Lynn on her release from jail, where she spent a year on a drug charge. Her first thoughts aren't of her kids, whom Marion has been raising, but of getting the hell out of her native Glasgow and hightailing it to Nashville. Strutting around in cowboy boots and denim, Rose-Lynn is brash, mouthy, feckless and openly selfish. But when she opens that mouth to sing Emmylou Harris or Wynonna Judd, beautiful things happen, making us wonder if she's right to follow the path her talent dictates.
It's a nice, thorny premise that Wild Rose, directed by veteran TV director Tom Harper and scripted by veteran TV writer Nicole Taylor, never quite makes work. The filmmakers rely on the charisma of their star to carry the movie, and to an extent it does. Buckley delivers a splashy, star-making performance reminiscent of the one Walters gave as a cheeky working-class girl in Educating Rita (1983), making their casting as mother and daughter feel apt. Her expressive face commands the screen. If Rose-Lynn alienates us with her recklessness, she wins us back with her transparency, never quite hiding the self-doubts behind the bravado.
Rose-Lynn also wins over Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), whose palatial home she cleans for a living. Nostalgic for her own youth, the older, wealthier woman fancies herself Rose-Lynn's fairy godmother without knowing the whole truth about her protégée. There's promising tension there, but Rose-Lynn's scenes with Susannah often feel underwritten and a little pat. When Susannah hears Rose-Lynn sing for the first time, Harper bathes the scene in heavenly radiance. Susannah's kids stare in open-mouthed awe, already stans for life.
It's overkill and too typical of the treatment of young actors in this movie. While Adam Mitchell and Daisy Littlefield are refreshingly natural as Rose-Lynn's kids, they don't get the screen time they need to develop a believable relationship with her. The movie inadvertently suggests that one beach holiday en famille is enough to counteract years of neglect.
Wild Rose is an uneasy blend of Hollywood "working-class kid with a dream" tropes and gritty realism, doing full justice to neither. Still, with rock-star biopics ruling the multiplexes, it's good to see a music-driven movie acknowledge that unleashing a God-given talent on the world doesn't always lead straight to fame and fortune.
Rose-Lynn's trajectory is a counterpoint to that glittery narrative, a reminder that success comes in many forms and that every sacrifice for a dream is a gamble. By the end, only one thing is resolved beyond a doubt: We'll be seeing more of Buckley on screen.