Once (2006) begs the question: can any fictionalized movie featuring unknown average people who are not actors be any good? The general answer would be no. Once is an exception to the rule. It is a short and crazy little film made on a shoestring in less than three weeks that is charming and which you will probably want to see more than once.
Filmed entirely in Dublin, it stars “Guy” and “Girl”. They never actually give their names over the course of the 85-minute film. Neither are actors, but Glen Halsard, who plays the street busker “Guy”, is known to those familiar with the Irish rock group The Frames. Halsard did in fact begin his career as a busker at the tender age of 13. “Girl” is Markéta Irglová. According to Wikipedia, she too now plays with The Frames. In fact, in real life she and Halsard released an album together, The Swell Season, the same year Once came out. That explains a lot, including their obvious attraction and ease with each other in the movie.
Irglová essentially plays herself too, since she is a Czech immigrant just like her character. Halsard’s passion is the guitar. Her passion is the piano. In this movie, she befriends him on the street while he is playing. It turns out busking is not his only source of income. He also works with his father fixing Hoover vacuums. Fortunately for Guy, Gal needs her vacuum fixed. This leads to some extremely cute scenes where Guy and Girl are seen walking down the streets of Dublin with Girl trailing a Hoover canister vacuum cleaner behind her.
It seems they are fated to intersect. While there is romantic tension, it is largely unexpressed. Girl is already married and has a toddler at home. She is also estranged from her husband but is trying to patch things up. Guy is still heartbroken over his own romance that went sour. Yet Gal is intrigued with Guy’s music. They work on songs together. Eventually they put together a small band and record their music. Then they are pulled back into the gravity of their real loves. For a brief but glorious time they make wonderful and passionate music together. It seems they have tacit agreement that their passion for each other can only be expressed indirectly in song. The honesty, unpretentiousness and feeling of authenticity makes this a very different film, but in a good way. They are two karmic ships passing in the night, exchanging a memorable bit of exquisite joy together, but it cannot last. His recording is good. He shuffles off to London to market it and to make amends with his girlfriend. Her husband arrives and she begins the difficult job of turning him into a real father and their marriage into a lasting one.
The hand held camera is sometimes a distraction. The sound quality can be poor at times too. The cinematography, if that is what it is, not to mention the editing, feels amateurish. These things probably will not irk you and I found them only mildly distracting. Instead, the movie is disarming and charming.
This film is too much in a class by itself for me to rate it. By the standards of conventional films, it would be a miserable failure. Yet it is not. In its own way, it is a small triumph of cinema veritá. Instead, a movie seemingly fated toward mediocrity, while it does not quite soar, may unexpectedly grab your heart.