Zanna, our six-year old, is obsessed with High School Musical at the moment (which probably bodes badly for her future). What this means is that we have to listen to it in the car rather a lot. And the problem with that is that the tunes end up getting snagged onto various hidden brain spikes and thus prove very difficult to erase (perhaps cillit bang is the only answer). Grrhhhgh.

I’m pleased to say that the recent indie movie stunner, ONCE, is nothing like that. In fact it seems outrageous even to refer to in the same breath. Rachel & I saw it last night and were instantly transfixed. The plot is slight, and not exactly groundbreakingly original:

  • Boy meets Girl (or rather ‘Guy’ meets ‘Girl’ because we’re never told their names) on the streets of Dublin.
  • Guy is Irish, Girl is Czech – both are poor.
  • Guy + Girl write songs and make music. Guy + Girl record that music.
  • But Guy + Girl have previous relationships that are still on/off.
  • To say what happens next would be to spoil plots!

But this is not actually a film to watch for plot twists or ingenuity. You watch it because it is so wonderfully human in a real, dare I say, wholesome way (a crushing description these days, isn’t it? I mean who wants to see a wholesome film anyway?). It could so easily have been trite or naff in less accomplished hands – but not for one moment were we bored or distracted. This film has genuine charm despite the predictabilities: for instance, you just knew that the bored-out-of-his-brains studio techie would get won over by the music once the band started recording. But he did because the music is genuinely excellent! And i think the heart of the film’s charm is found in the rather whimsical script (which only lightly, but therefore all the more powerfully, touches on the hardships of immigrant or busking life in Dublin) and in the 2 lead characters. Glen Hansard, an Irish singer, and Czech first time actress, Markéta Irglová, are simply loveable souls trying to get on with life – singing their way to healing of past scars and sustaining cherished hopes. It certainly appeals to the romantics around that the 2 are now ‘an item’ offscreen as well and are making music together.

Yet this film is not gushy or plastic romance (unlike High School Musical!). After one viewing, the film to my mind hardly makes a single misstep. The camerawork is edgy (deliberately low-tech and hand-held), the locations very unfilm-setty (in the scruffier parts of Dublin, with various scenes filmed while shoppers bustled completely oblivious of the cameras), the dialogue very natural (almost even improvised at times). There is a gentle humour throughout – the image of the Girl dragging the hoover through the pedestrian areas of Dublin will stick in my mind for ages. And the emotional tone is very real but engagingly powerful – not just through the songs but also through the central friendship. But don’t expect the film to provide easy answers, and there is certainly no lazy or slick moral framework here. Both the Guy & Girl have previous commitments, which their relationship with each other provokes them to re-evaluate. That is what makes the film so unpredictable, and ultimately, for me, so interesting. For it is about reality, not escapism (despite the fun interludes of the rock star wannabe bank manager etc!) – and for nearly all of us, reality means family, parents and children, money, making ends meet, surviving.

The film’s quirkiness and unpredictability really reminded me of one of my favourite films, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. That is not to disparage or diminish either at all – neither are actually hugely formulaic (despite simple plotlines). Both use music brilliantly and evocatively, both have an edgy unpredictable quality without huge plot twists, both deal with living in a cross-cultural environment (though Once makes less of that), both focus on a relationship between an older man who is rather stuck in life and a younger woman who becomes a sort of muse and catalyst for real living. But Once is nothing like as ‘angsty’ as Lost in Translation; it is more positive and forward looking. And what’s more, I’ve already bought the soundtrack on iTunes and love it!

All in all, cinematic joy! 5 stars! Get out and watch it.


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