A musical for the modern age, “Once” is a lovely bit of Irish pleasantness in which two wandering young souls come together and make beautiful music together. The tunes tend to be of the shoe-gazing indie-folk variety, and the cinematography is natural and documentary-like. You get the sense that if the guy who plays guitar in the subway made a movie, it would look like this.
The characters are never named. The guy (Glen Hansard) is a street guitarist who works part-time in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. The girl (Marketa Irglova) is a Czech girl who lives with her mother and young daughter and plays piano when she gets the chance. They meet; they become friends; they become musical collaborators; romance seems imminent.
That is basically the entire story there, and it’s the lack of more substance, plot-wise, that prevents me from completely loving the film. (Even at just 88 minutes, it still feels a little long.) But I certainly do like it! Hansard and Irglova are both musicians, not actors (though they act well enough, too), and their musical performances are genuinely impressive. When other characters in the film rave about how good their songs are, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that hey, they’re right. These songs ARE pretty good!
Writer/director John Carney let the actors improvise through many of the scenes, and the naturalness is a huge benefit to the film. It feels immediate and real, not removed and plastic the way many films (and especially musicals) often do.
I like also how the guy’s dad (Bill Hodnett) is sweetly supportive of his musical career, not dismissive the way movie fathers often are. In fact, there aren’t many conflicts in the story at all — and you don’t miss them. It’s a smiling, hopeful film, simply constructed and very emotionally appealing. It may not sound like much to hear it described, but I bet you’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy it.
B+ (1 hr., 28 min.; )