Last night I finally got around to watching Once, the little Irish indie flick that got so much critical acclaim last year. It is, in fact, a remarkable film — worthy of the buzz.

I’m not sure what you’d call it. A “musical”? Not exactly — the movie’s entirely naturalistic. There’s no spontaneous breaking out into song and dance. It very much looks like a gritty indie, handheld cameras and all. And yet, substantial portions of its running time are spent on nothing more than steady shots of people playing music. In this way it’s almost like an extended music video.

And through all that comes a love story of sorts, though a modest one — there’s no melodrama, no fairy tale ending, no slow-motion-running-through-the-streets-to-catch-her-at-the-airport. Just two people who meet, spend some time together making music, and then part. I don’t even think they ever kiss.

Yet through some strange alchemy, the very modesty of the movie — its style and its story — serves to convey an unmediated and intensely visceral sense at the power of music to connect people on a level deeper than talk. I honestly can’t remember a better movie about music.

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There’s one moment I remember in particular. The Irish busker (he is never named) sits down to teach his song to the Czech girl (she’s never named either) he met a day or two prior. At first he’s showing her the chords and sections; they’re puzzling through it together. Then, slowly, she catches on … and they’re just playing. About a minute or two in, he glances up, and flashes her a quick, shy smile. She doesn’t even see it — she’s staring intently at her piano — but there is a universe contained in that smile. It’s a small miracle, one of the more affecting scenes I’ve seen in any movie in ages. It says more about the fragility and power of human connection than any ten mass-produced romantic comedies.

The Irish busker, it turns out, is Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Irish band The Frames, who have a number of excellent albums. (He’s never acted before! Amazing.) The girl is Marketa Irglova, his real-life sweetie and another first-time actor (unbelievable). This is a song they did together, called “When Your Mind’s Made Up.”

And here’s the trailer for the movie:

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