Once is a moving indie film with the charm and ambition of a bittersweet pop song. Its only shortcoming is that, while a pop song lasts three or four minutes, Once stretches character sketches and slender narrative threads across a full hour and a half en route to a gentle emotional pay-off. This melancholy almost-love story stars Glen Hansard as an Irish busker with big ambitions–and a crush on a young Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) he meets on the streets of Dublin. Their tentative courtship takes the form of performance, with the film’s memorable centerpiece set in the back of a musical-instrument store as the two of them bang out “Falling Slowly,” the film’s signature tune. The scene is a tour de force, partly because Once is as much about songs (these were written by the lead actors, who are both musicians) as it is story, but also because director John Carney understands how performance reveals character. (It reminded me a lot of Jonathan Demme’s music videos and concert films, which benefit from their close readings of performers’ faces.) It’s a modest film, with DIY attitude barely masking threadbare production values, but a special one–an uncompromised, deeply felt movie musical that believes in the power of smart chord progressions and soaring, imperfect vocals in an era of superficial pop razzle-dazzle. B+
A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.