I was talking about Once via instant messenger with a fellow film fan before the press screening. "It's Irish. Apparently a modern musical. With pop music." The reply came fast: "Wow. That could be horrible or wonderful. There's no middle ground." And, after seeing Once, it turns out that it's a lot closer to wonderful than horrible. That's in no small part thanks to the sheer charm of the film, which is in itself no small part thanks to the charm of the two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Hansard plays a busker and singer-songwriter; Irglova is a Czech émigré who strikes up a friendship with him. They meet one night as he's pouring his heart out into one of his own compositions, and she's struck by it enough to throw money into his guitar case. He's not exactly bowled over by her contribution for his art: "Thanks. Ten Cents. Brilliant."
Writer-director John Carney has a great talent for capturing the way it's often easier to be intimate with strangers than friends, and Hansard and Irlova reach out to each other from their normally quiet lives: He's getting over a broken relationship, she's got a complicated backstory. It's the way that Carney's script and the performances delineate those interactions that elevates Once above the quotidian and the cliché: asked about his great lost love, Hansard recalls the facts of the matter in song, switching from country to blues to heavy metal on the back of a bus.

Thankfully, the musical nature of the film is part and parcel of Hansard's character's life as an aspiring musician, and not the sort of "And now/I go to the bath-roooooom!" musical convention where people are constantly singing instead of speaking. Irglova, it turns out, is a piano player and singer -- she can't afford a piano, but the local shop lets her use any of their floor models -- and the two make beautiful music together, in more ways than one.

And yet, it's not just Hansard and Irglova's film; Carney has filled Once with brief, brisk character moments for everyone in the film, from Irglova's mother to Hansard's dad to a busking backup band with an extremely limited repertoire ("We only play Lizzy.") When Irglova and Hansard go to get a loan to finance his recording of some demos -- playing a tape of low-fi four track samples in a bank office -- I thought I was going to witness a cop-out of a scene, or a stretching of plausibility to fit the film's arc, but instead, with two lines and two cuts, Carney turns what could have been a crippling plot problem into a great, rousing moment.

And the songs -- written for the most part by Hansard himself -- aren't half-bad either: A little Damien Rice, a little Van Morrison, a little of U2's bellowing sensitivity. The plot's central action -- Hansard's going to record a demo and take it to the big city -- isn't just the standard-issue struggling artist story it could have been, but, rather, a symbol for moving on, daring to be happy, daring to reach out. Shot on digital video and shot through with passion, Once is a true pleasure that only the rankest cynic couldn't enjoy.