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(2007) *** R
88 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: John Carney. Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Hugh Walsh, Gerry Hendrick, Alastair Foley.

In the new "airy tale" musical Once (the title implies an unspoken "Upon a Time"), Guy meets Girl, and both constantly break out in song to express their deepest feelings. But they do so because they're musicians by nature and, to a lesser extent, by trade. "Guy"'s a busking balladeer; "Girl"'s a closet musician whose aspirations have yet to take flight. Together, they're combustible, fueling each other's individual art, their incipient collaboration, and a mutual affection that may turn into wildfire.

I say "airy tale" not because my keyboard sticks, but because writer-director John Carney's film is pretty much wall-to-wall music. The simplistic plot is basically an excuse for the two characters to meet-cute, hang-out-cute, and record-an-album-cute, singing all the while. But any more plot would break the spell of a film that Carney has taken to calling "a visual album." Once does what a good song cycle does: tell a story by connecting music and lyrics that express mental states and depths of feeling.

Dubliner Glen Hansard (front man of the Frames and one-time supporting player in The Commitments) plays Guy, who's all about his music (and the heartbreak of an erstwhile love). With a style that suggests Chris Martin crossed with Elvis Costello (in ballad mode), Hansard churns out raw emotion in his street peformances, then refines his expression as he labors to cut a proper demo album. The Girl (Markéta Irglová), late of the Czech Republic, completes Guy by complementing his hurt with a gentle, salving understanding and a longing of her own.

A self-confessed "lonely...sucker," Guy may or may not be in the right place to commit to a relationship with Girl, and, intiuting the deeper hesitance under his outward enthusiasm, she remains watchfully coy. Hansard and Irglová (amazingly, only 17 when cameras rolled) demonstrate palpable chemistry and musical chops; before filming, they'd already collaborated on an album. The songs resulting from that collaboration and the renewed one for Carney's film are tender, poignant, hopeful, and, in the context of the film, the antidote to Guy's solo bitterness. It's a musical courtship—he on guitar, her on piano, and both in vocal harmony. It's also a scruffy cinematic sleeper with which anyone's liable to fall in love.

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