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Just who is country music for? Anyone for whom it strikes a chord. In last year’s rousing “Wild Rose,” star Jessie Buckley and director Tom Harper made the argument that a Scottish lass with a rap sheet is as outlaw country as they come.
In Diane Paragas’ debut feature, “Yellow Rose,” the filmmaker asserts that the heartfelt tales of love and loss found in country music are best expressed by a young, undocumented Filipina in Texas, Rose (Eva Noblezada).
The 24-year-old Noblezada, nominated for a Tony Award at 21 for her performance as Kim in the revival of “Miss Saigon,” makes her film debut as budding country star Rose. Ironically, Noblezada isn’t even the only Kim from “Miss Saigon” in the film, as Tony winner Lea Salonga (also the singing voice of Disney’s Jasmine and Mulan) has a supporting role as her aunt Gail (completing the “Miss Saigon” hat trick: Noblezada’s aunt Annette Calud also played the role on Broadway).
Suffice to say, with Noblezada’s pipes, Rose can sing. Her gift is simply innate, her love of music planted by her parents, the seed of her talent cultivated in Texas soil.
Rose lives with her mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), in a motel where Priscilla works as a maid. One night Rose sneaks out with her friend Elliot (Liam Booth) from the guitar shop to see country star Dale Watson at Austin’s legendary Broken Spoke dance hall. When they return, ICE is dragging Priscilla out of their home to be deported. Suddenly, Rose is rootless, adrift, surprised to find herself undocumented in her own home state. She seeks shelter with her aunt Gail, before drifting to a backroom at the Broken Spoke, where ICE raids are imminent. All the while she strums her guitar, pens her lyrics, searching for a place to stop rolling.
“Yellow Rose” is an emotional blunt instrument. It’s not exactly subtle, but then again, the best country songs, and the best coming-of-age tales, rarely are. Noblezada plays to a full house at times, rather than to the camera, and the script leaves no stone unturned. But Noblezada’s performance is incredibly captivating and invigorating.
She plays Rose as coltish, feisty and a bit rough around the edges. But there’s something undeniably special about this girl, her straightforward manner, her vulnerability, in the way she shares her irrepressible, almost contagious passion for music.
It’s irresistible even to Watson, playing himself, who becomes her mentor and friend, offering Rose the resources to pursue her music and pushing her to perform onstage.
The film, and Noblezada, hit a stride and find a sense of flow, making for an affecting portrayal of a young woman finding her footing against all odds, and claiming her home in a nation that makes it unduly challenging. “Yellow Rose” is infused with a deep love and appreciation for the music culture and history of Austin, Texas, a place where Rose just makes sense as a singer, songwriter and storyteller expressing her true experiences from the heart, like the best country artists always do.
That her story is one of struggling to fit in, of losing her mother to an overreaching and inhumane government not only ties her to the greatest country artists of the past, it makes her tale achingly, and appropriately, contemporary.