Last spring before heading off to Ireland I read a glowing review of The Swell Season, a musical collaboration between Frames frontman Glen Hansard & Czech singer/pianist Marketa Irglova, which placed it at the top of my Dublin shopping list. Back in Toronto after giving it a listen I had to wonder how, in all my years spent living in Dublin, I'd committed the enormous oversight of not picking up a single Frames album. I've since remedied that by purchasing most of their back catalogue and catching them live but for the past month I've also been in high anticipation mode, awaiting the Toronto release of Once.

Shot for less than $150,000, Once (directed & written by John Carney) tells an exceedingly simple story with enormous charm and heart and without a hint of guile. Glen Hansard is an Irish busker, still suffering from a broken heart over a previous girlfriend. Marketa Irglova does various jobs, cleaning house and working as a street vendor. She's also a hauntingly beautiful piano player and when the two of them begin playing music together their growing connection is a pleasure to watch. There are no melodramatic Hollywood style plot points to hang the story on, just a natural evolution of the relationship between these characters.
Marketa Irglova (left) and Glen Hansard (lead singer of The Frames) in John Carney's "Once".
Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in Once

I have to admit that I suffered nostalgia pangs from the very opening scene on Grafton Street. The Dublin these two characters inhabit was the place I lived during the 90's - not just in location but in spirit. The film is, in fact, set in the present day but neither of these characters are roaring examples of the Celtic Tiger economy (nor do they appear to care) and as a result it feels like looking into the past, my past. In the early to mid 90's none of the friends I had in Dublin had any money to speak of. The unemployment rate was up around 20% and many others were underemployed. Most of my friends were either performers or foreigners waylaid by Dublin's charisma. We spent our time hanging out (in pubs, cheap restaurants and drafty, minimally decorated flats) all seemingly searching for something but not in any particular hurry to find it. There were few toys (cellphones, the Internet and Xbox had yet to work their way into popular culture) yet there never seemed to be any shortage of things to do. Everybody knew everyone else. Faces in the street were familiar, even if you didn't know the name to go with the face. Most people my age didn't have cars. We took the bus, walked or caught taxis. I shared one phone with countless other flat dwellers in the same building, as did so many other people I knew. For a long time I didn't even own a TV and didn't miss it.

I was often confused (about the usual things - as were my friends and as the characters are in Once) but most of my best times in Dublin were spent just trying to figure all that stuff out, in the exact time and place where everyone else was figuring them out. Once is that kind of movie, it's about two people who are miles truer than those you'll find in most multiplex movies. I didn't know these two particular people in Dublin in the 90's but I feel like I did. I feel like one - or both of them - sat down with me in some pub, cheap restaurant or drafty flat and told me the story of them.

• Read The Ain't It Cool interview with Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova and John Carney.

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