By Chaz Lipp

I don’t think writer-director Bradley Rust Gray did his film any favors by naming it Jack & Diane. While John Mellencamp certainly doesn’t own the rights to those names, his 1982 hit is so ubiquitous it’s nearly impossible to read the title without immediately hearing the song in one’s head (well, at least for anyone over 30—maybe Gray was banking on a younger audience). The film has nothing to do with the song, so choosing different names for the title characters would’ve prevented people like me from wasting time even discussing it. The low-key romance is worth seeing for the performances of Riley Keough and Juno Temple alone.

The other baggage this film carries, probably more significant than the title, is that it has come to be known as the “lesbian werewolf” movie. I’ll say it up front—don’t go into this one expecting horror thrills or any overt dealings with the main characters’ sexual orientation. The “werewolf” is actually quite a hideous beast that exists entirely in the mind of Diane (Temple). She dreams/imagines the creature only a handful of times, but it is incidental and could’ve probably been edited out without seriously altering the impact of the movie. She’s a painfully awkward teen, on the verge of adulthood in terms of years but mentally still quite immature. After losing her cell phone, she meets Jack (Keough), a boyish girl about her age, while asking to use a phone at a retail store.

That simple setup more or less carries the whole film. The British Diane is in New York for only a few weeks before she jets off to France for school. But she and Jack hit it off, kind of an “opposites attract” situation, but they both know it can’t last. So all-consuming is their lust for each other, Diane feels as if it’s taking over, at least on a subconscious level (enter the aforementioned beast). Their physical encounters reveal Jack to be a far more experienced lover, with Diane balking at some of the more adventurous moves she attempts. The monster (and symbolic internally-occurring changes, represented by the Brothers Quay’s stop-motion hair sprouting from veins, wrapping around bones) is a good idea, but I’m not sure Gray fully developed the possibilities of what it means to Diane’s perception of her own sexuality.

There’s also a subplot about Diane’s twin sister, who it turns out was featured in an online amateur porn production that may have been made without her consent. This does spur a major turning point in Jack and Diane’s fling, but otherwise the twin sister is a mostly unseen and unheard diversion. There’s a supremely awkward scene in which Jack mistakenly thinks she’s on the phone with Diane, but it turns out to be the sister (of whom she wasn’t yet aware). But like the beast, the twin element seemed to be leading somewhere on a few occasions but without any real follow through.

What works beautifully are the lead performances. Most of what Jack and Diane say to each other, on the surface, isn’t very interesting. In fact, there’s an abundance of references to various bodily functions. We learn that Jack likes to dip her sushi in ketchup. Diane is staying at her aunt Linda’s (Cara Seymour) place. The two maintain a mutually tolerated acceptance of each other’s existence. This isn’t a film about the challenges or pressures of coming out. The same-sex relationship angle is accepted by all without any fuss. So, despite my caveats about underdeveloped plot elements, the interactions of the leading actresses—and all the subtext buried beneath their inarticulate mumbling—takes center stage. There’s a hypnotic quality to the stillness of the film, which allows the delicacy and nuance of Keough and Temple’s work to shine brightly.

The Blu-ray offers up a consistently sharp image. Though I wasn’t 100 percent sure while watching, Jack & Diane was shot on 35mm film. Grain is very, very fine and the transfer has great contrast and black levels overall. Colors are realistic and vivid at times, looking especially pleasing during a red lighting-dominated club scene. The experimental score by múm highlights the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, with ambient synth sounds strategically placed in the rear channels. Occasionally a mumbled line of Diane’s dialogue is a bit hard to decipher, but that’s more down to Temple’s accent and style of delivery than the way the audio is mixed. Like the movie itself, this mix boasts many subtle surprises and rewards close attention to detail.

A short featurette about the monster effects and an even shorter promo piece make up the Blu-ray’s only features. While my overall reaction may be somewhat mixed, I do recommend Jack & Diane fairly strongly to anyone with a taste for off-kilter relationship dramas with incisive acting.

(Photos: Magnolia Pictures)
Chaz Lipp

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