‘Janie’ is a familiar classic rock tale
Oh, the excruciating moment when someone in a one-way relationship realizes that it was all just in her own mind and heart.
The rock ’n’ redemption drama “Janie Jones’’ opens with a memorable reprise of this theme, as drug-jittery onetime groupie Mary Ann (Elisabeth Shue) heads for a backstage reunion with fading, hard-living rocker Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola). Mary Ann is desperate to get cleaned up, but she is nervous that Ethan will balk at her plea that he take charge of their 13-year-old daughter, Janie (Abigail Breslin). After all, he doesn’t even know about her. It never occurs to Mary Ann that Janie is not the only one who will draw a cruel blank with Ethan. It’s a pin-drop moment when the guy just kicks back with his bandmates and indifferently laughs this woman out of the room.
Disappointingly, filmmaker David M. Rosenthal (“Falling Up’’) doesn’t deliver much else that’s this sharply defined. Not that Nivola (“Junebug’’) and Breslin don’t do solid work within those confines. The movie becomes their story when Mary Ann abandons Janie at the gig they have crashed, and the local law can’t come up with a better solution (really?) than to pack the poor girl onto Ethan’s tour bus. Ethan half-heartedly tries to play dad, but it’s clear where this is headed: Eventually he will selfishly screw up, and Janie will have a front-row seat. What is just as clear from the moment Breslin picks up a guitar is that Janie is going to end up being right at Ethan’s side - even onstage - just when he needs someone most. How can she not rock just a little? Her mom named her after a Clash tune.
Nivola, with his character’s glassy eyes and scruffy stage presence, knows how to do a convincingly edgy downward spiral. Ditto for sheepish, half-acknowledged post-bender regret. Meanwhile, Breslin, in her strongest scenes, plays Janie less as a devoted Pollyanna than as a kid believably rolling with adults’ bad behavior because she doesn’t know how else to respond.
The two have a nice moment in which Ethan apologizes for some hateful words spouted within Janie’s earshot, only for her to coolly deny she had heard them - emotional disconnection subtly flashed as an inherited trait. The actors also acquit themselves well singing the film’s numerous tunes. Breslin’s voice is pleasantly melodic, while Nivola sounds like someone who’s been grinding it out on tour for years.
Trouble is, the characterizations are distractingly erratic. Nivola has the chops to make Ethan a bastard with a streak of decency, and he does. But the way the film jumps from one aspect to the other and back, you get the sense that Rosenthal is not so much showcasing that complexity as dialing up whatever tone conveniently moves his story from point A to B to C. Similarly, we get a sad-eyed Breslin here, and a bright-eyed Breslin there. At-risk adolescent, or little Miss Sunshine? “Janie Jones’’ would feel more assured if Rosenthal had shown more inclination to commit.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.