A love story that's not a love story, and a musical that's not a musical, there's something about the tiny Irish import Once that makes you want to fall head-over-heels in love with it no matter how slight it seems to be when you get to thinking about it rationally. I think perhaps it's because the film is scruffy - it's low-fi both visually and aurally, with two lead stars who are palpably not professional actors, with ideas cribbed from all over the place; all of this in the service of a delicate and simple and completely sincere little wisp of a story.

You've got a guy (Glen Hansard, frontman for The Frames) and you've got a girl (Markéta Irglová), and while I would swear that they had given names, those aren't in the credits, and I'm damned if I can remember now what they were. Anyways, he's a guitar-playing busker when he isn't working at his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop; she's a Czech immigrant to Dublin who does whatever she can, although she really wants to play classical piano. He's not over his ex, who lives in London; her husband stayed behind when she and their son emigrated.

What happens between them isn't exactly that they fall in love, although hundreds of prefabricated Hollywood objects and dozens of archly quirky indie projects have us so primed to believe that they simply must that I, for one, didn't realize they hadn't until the final fade-out. Instead, they fall into a sort of "musician's love," I don't know what else to call it, in which something like romantic affection turns into, and is created from, a week of artistic collaboration between the two. Sort of like Music and Lyrics only not soulless, this is an exploration of the truism that making collaborative art means that you kind of have to fall in love just a little bit with your collaborators, as attested to by the songs of Lennon & McCartney, or Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the very best parts of the movie, when it reaches something like transcendence, are not the indie relationshippy scenes, which you've seen many times before, but the scenes in which we watch semi-professionals with heart (played by professionals, with what I assume is heart) performing the simple yet arduous task of making music. The chief example of this is The Scene, that one that everybody talks about, the one that I will still remember decades hence when I am agéd and tottering, in which the guy with his guitar joins the girl at a music shop where she occasionally gets to tool around with a piano, and he teaches her a song that he's been working on, "Falling Slowly." Not incidentally, this song debuted on The Swell Season, a 2006 album that Hansard and Irglová released together, and watching them perform it together is not merely the most realistic scene of its kind that I have ever seen - it doesn't spring fully orchestrated, but sound rough and unpolished - but is also a perfect example of that very phenomenon I mentioned just above: they play, and they fall in love, and that is why they are able to reach such amazing heights.

It's not the only musical moment that strives for, and reaches, sublimity. There is the first take in the recording session, when Hansard, Irglová and their band play, with some small difficulty, a really fine song that wins over not just the cynical mixing board operator, but the audience as well; or the tiny moment when the girl listens to a demo track of an instrumental track and sings the lyrics that she's been working on as she walks down the street, in one uninterrupted shot, from a convenience store. Never have I seen a musical in which the songs are all worked into the film so realistically and organically, and while it's not my style to complain about the inherent surrealism of classical Hollywood musicals, to see their very opposite, as we do in Once is to be aware that you are seeing history born in front of you.

Those parts of the film that aren't music-driven are not "bad," I should say, but they are also not very brilliant, and it's hard to deny that it's a bit of a disappointment. As a raw study of the unglamourous in Dublin, Once is a triumph: the cheap video that it's been shot on turns into a positive virtue, and the apparent lack of finessed lighting, or really any cinematographic flash, makes this exercise in realism that much more direct and powerful. But it's not anything that we haven't seen, and frankly it's something that we've seen done much, much better.

Even the script by director John Carney (the Frames' ex-bassist), for all that it is sweet and true, breaks no ground. The girl in particular is familiar from virtually every indie romance of this decade, and her more aggressive quirks (particularly an episode in which she drags a broken vacuum through the city) are reminiscent of the elfin pseudo-women of films like Garden State. It's probably worth pointing out for the uninitiated that "this film reminded me, however tangentially, of Garden State," is a rather dire criticism in these parts.

And while the charmingly unactorly performances of our heroes is very classically neo-realist, that doesn't suddenly magic away the fact that actors act and non-actors...don't.

Is it honestly felt? Absolutely. Is it perfect? Only in spots. I suppose my point is this: there are moments of the highest cinematic bliss in Once, and they are not infrequent; but they are also not overwhelming. There's plenty to love, and plenty to just "like." But for a summer release, this is unabashed gold.

And now, if I might, I'd like to give the final word to Dave Weigel:"[a] beautiful Irish movie that, if seen on a date, will get you instantly laid." Surely, we can all get behind that.