I don’t know if it’s as obvious to people that read my articles as it is to people that know me in person, but I’m apparently the kind of person who would love the movie Once. The small-budget Irish flick from 2006 has cute leads that sing and play acoustic guitar and piano. The story is a quiet tale of love with fantastic songs interwoven into the plot. Also, I have heard it on more than one occasion described as “hipster,” which seems to be a style I accidentally trip into…a lot.
Anyway, I love Once. I had the good fortune of re-watching it recently and, even though I wasn’t home, I felt like I was snuggled up in a warm blanket with hot chocolate on a favorite couch. Once has a homey feel to it, and watching it is like hanging out with old friends again, or having your favorite meal with your beloved. Once is being home with your loved ones on Christmas Eve. I don’t think that’s just some weird personal attachment I have to the movie. While the sentiment might not be universal, Once manages to be incredibly intimate and warm despite—and maybe because of—a small budget and non-professional actors. I’m going to try to pick apart exactly why Once is great, or at least why I find it to be so.
So here is my love letter to one of my favorite movies dressed up in the guise of a review. Grab some hot chocolate.
The Plot: In Dublin, a man—credited as Guy (Glen Hansard)—busks and works in his father’s hoover repair shop. One day he meets a young woman—credited as Girl (Markéta Irglová)—and they begin to hang out and play music together. They decide to record a demo, and they grow closer to each other.
That is a simple story if ever there was one. But writer/director John Carney uses this bare-bones idea to explore the dynamic between Guy and Girl to great effect. Their affection for each other grows but not through proclamations or physical cues. Instead, the rhythm of the conversations and comfortable chemistry between the two grows as the story develops, and the songs—which function like those of a musical, but are given in-movie reasons to be sung and are not just random lyrical contemplations of the characters—beautifully portray the inner turmoils and the dynamic between the two.
And by the way, the songs are incredible. “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for Original Song, which is one of the more deserved Oscars I’ve seen in the past decade. The rest of the music is of a similar quality, and the way that the music is worked into the movie shows how strong of a grip Carney and the editors have on the story they want to tell. I love musicals, but the logical incorporation of the music into the story is a nice touch. Further, the folksy, homemade feel to the songs matches the quietness of the story; even when Hansard is screaming out the lyrics, they feel rawly emotional but not melodramatic and overdone. The word “earnest” might best describe the music, and moreover describe every aspect of the movie.
The logical development of the story also makes Once stand out both amongst more grandiose love stories and other understated indie flicks. Simplicity and minimalism are tricky in telling an emotional tale, and often directors or writers will create something so streamlined as to be trite. But Guy and Girl’s time together gives them both enough backstory to make them distinct and human, but only in relation to the story we watch develop. Their pasts are revealed in their actions, songs, and occasional dialogues that address their backstories directly. The weight of history—without too many details so as to be too particular—on the present is relatable, and thus the story is both specific and welcoming to all viewers.
The relationship that forms the crux of the movie also succeeds where many in romance movies fail because the focus is not on explicit sentiments or sexual tension, but rather how the interactions mean a lot to both of them on an emotional level, as evidenced by how they help each other pursue their interests and goals. Guy and Girl spend time together, but the key to their relationship is how they allow each other to explore their own strengths and dreams, such as coming to terms with their pasts through music.
Ultimately, the story is about two people who learn to be themselves and come to terms with all that entails by trying to understand each other. As far as I can tell, that’s a pretty wide-appealing concept to base a movie on, and Once does it better than most movies that I can think of.
I think that the simplicity is a driving cause of the warmth that permeates every part of Once, which includes not just the story and music, but also the casual and natural acting and carefully constructed home-video style of the cinematography. That warmth, for me, makes watching Once a comfort, like drinking hot chocolate or taking a well-deserved break from a busy week. When the credits roll after an ending that might not be “happy” but is extremely satisfying, Once completes its story and—for me—leaves some powerful sentiments that I can’t wait to explore again soon by watching the film once more. So if you’re looking for something warm this holidays that might not be a holiday movie per se, Once is your ticket.