John Carney's sadly beautiful Once is a musical for people who only think they hate musicals, and not just because it boasts virtues seldom associated with the genre, such as realism, intimacy, and low-key verisimilitude. Musical-bashers often complain about the suspension of disbelief required for spectacles in which characters spontaneously break out into song-and-dance routines, but Once's songs are integrated into the story so organically that it'd be unrealistic if the characters weren't largely immersed in them. They are musicians, after all, and the songs they sing say more about their characters than any monologue possibly could.
In a stunning lead performance, Glen Hansard of the Irish pop group The Frames stars as a lovelorn street musician who bares his heart and soul in every wildly emotive song, but keeps people at a wary distance in his personal life. While busking one day, Hansard encounters Markéta Irglová, a lonely immigrant, mother, and gifted singer-pianist. Irglová and Hansard have an instant musical chemistry, but they're too shy and conflicted to let their creative connection lead to bigger things. When Hansard recruits Irglová to work on a demo he's recording, long, productive nights spent realizing Hansard's musical vision and a joyous shared creative alchemy push them together, while equally powerful unseen forces work just as doggedly to keep them apart.
Once's songs are delicate yet shatteringly powerful, and they gain a whole new resonance from the way they express emotions that the film's tragically repressed characters keep bottled up. In a genre full of dreamy escapism and madcap flights of fancy, this ingratiatingly scruffy, slice-of-working-class-life treasure is brave enough to be quiet and restrained, yet littered with moments of transcendence, musical and otherwise. In its own subdued, mellow way, Once is just about perfect. Imagine Belle And Sebastian remaking In The Mood For Love as a heartbreaking low-fi musical, and you have a fair approximation of the film's melancholy, unexpected genius.