Told with the simplicity of a Chaplin film (more than once I was reminded of City Lights), Once has the tentative and unpredictable amble of a chance encounter rather than the absolute and overdetermined structure of a Hollywood film. In this case, Girl meets Guy, and Girl and Guy make beautiful music - literally - together and apart.
More than the music, the performances supply the charm of the unassuming film written and directed by John Carney. In a movie season of big bangs and gigantism, this acoustic bit of counterprogramming offers quiet characters at human scale.
We don't know much about either when, at the music store with the Girl at the keyboard, the Guy improvises the lyric, "I don't know you. But I want you / All the more for that."
Like lightning in a bottle, this little scene in this little movie holds universal yearning and anticipation. It is the lover's prayer; it is the filmgoer's appeal.
As it crisscrosses Dublin from the modest vacuum-cleaner repair shop where the Guy works alongside his father to the flat the Girl shares with her mother, Once shares its sense of discovery of the city and these shaggy citizens. In a lovely sequence, the Girl, in slippers and bathrobe, goes to the convenience store to get batteries, and you hear the rhythms of the street become the rhythm of her songs.
Only after the film takes leave of the Guy and the Girl do you realize they have communicated almost exclusively through lyrics and song. It's a movie musical as pure as any opera.
Once *** (out of four stars)
Written and directed by John Carney, photography by Tim Fleming, music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
The Guy. . . Glen Hansard
The Girl. . . Markéta Irglová
Guy's Dad. . . Bill Hodnett
Girl's Mother. . . Danuse Ktrestova
Parent's guide: R (profanity)
Showing at: Ritz Five
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://go/philly.com/flickgrrl/