2019

Tribeca Film Festival Review: Tom Harper’s ‘Wild Rose’

Above all else, Tom Harper’s Wild Rose makes for a toe-tapping tale of Rose-Lynn, a Nashville-ready country music talent springing up in far-away Glasgow, Scotland. The film’s soundtrack is primed to dominate any cinephile’s summer Spotify playlists, and it should provide an ample springboard for its charismatic lead Jessie Buckley. She’s the star of the movie from the moment she marches on screen, and her turn as Rose-Lynn makes her more than worthy of the meaty roles that will likely come her way. Yet even as I left Wild Rose humming along to the rousing final number, I could not shake the sensation that Harper and screenwriter Nicole Taylor left their lead performer out to dry.

In the film’s third act, Taylor’s script forces Buckley to play a number of story beats that ring untrue to the character of Rose-Lynn that she crafted. The film, which had up to this point felt like an authentic expression of how her journey from housekeeper to superstar might play out, begins to act out of fear that Rose-Lynn will be judged against a harsh social norm. An untethered spirit suddenly feels boxed into a much narrower space, and Wild Rose suffers for it. To understand without spoilers, take a step back from the film itself and examine it within a larger cultural frame.

The world continues to make great strides in diversifying the swaths of experience we understand, recognize and deem worthy of our attention. Significant progress has been made in particular with telling female stories, both in terms of granting more creative control to women and in expanding audiences’ understanding beyond simple whore/Madonna binaries. Yet one taboo that still persists surrounds motherhood. There’s an implication that once a woman has children, she is a “bad mom” unless she subjugates all other desires and passions to prioritize their care. Onlookers frame any success she achieves in other arenas as coming at the expense of her children’s wellbeing while — shocker — they rarely say the same of fathers.

Early in Wild Rose, it’s revealed that Rose-Lynn gave birth to two children before the age of 18 and has entrusted them in the care of her dutiful, weary mother Marion (Julie Walters) while she served her sentence in prison. It’s obvious that she views them less as her life’s calling and more of a burden that she must manage. For most of Wild Rose, they barely factor into the proceedings at all, popping up here and there but registering primarily as blips in Rose-Lynn’s periphery. All signs indicate that she is focused on earning enough money to stabilize her life and belting out the country tunes that flow so naturally through her.

Yet when events begin aligning serendipitously for Rose-Lynn and a path to singing stardom emerges, the guilt trip of Nicole Taylor’s script begins. All of a sudden, Marion presses her daughter with startling vigor to claim the parental responsibility she routinely casts aside. Rose-Lynn, who heretofore remained impervious to shame, begins to factor this consideration into her decision-making in a way that feels out of character. While of course people can change their lives and minds on a dime, it seems as if she responds to the judgment of the film’s creators more than any stimulus within the film itself throughout the third act.

Wild Rose has the makings of a movie deathly afraid of validating a “bad mother,” even if it comes at the expense of the protagonist’s internal consistency. Given her demonstrable fervor for country music and observable disinterest in fulfilling her parental obligations, it stretches belief that such a bellicose spirit could immediately corral the discipline to make such a sacrifice. Wild Rose, thankfully, does not propagate the fallacious notion that Rose-Lynn must choose between her kids and the music altogether. But the resolution that Harper and Taylor present rings a little untrue, and the character feels a little bit compromised for going through it. The idealized outcome of “having it all” has increasingly become the domain of wealthy women. It is more of a fiction for working-class strivers like Rose-Lynn.

There is precedent for interrogating this assumption, too. Amazon’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel presents its leading lady with a similar conundrum to Rose-Lynn: career or children. But unlike Wild Rose, the show remains unbowed in declaring that Midge Maisel finds the deepest satisfaction in her standup comedy. If she requires other family members to help compensate in the care of her young ones, then she should not face judgment or stigmatization. It’s to the film’s ultimate detriment that the filmmakers could not find it within themselves to allow Rose-Lynn a similar freedom, both from the punishing glare of a patriarchal society and to pursue her dream with the same encouragement we so readily provide to men and childless women. While this incongruity does not undo the pleasures of the music, the discordance between the performance’s virtues and the film’s moral compass does stand out.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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