When a film is called 'Janie Jones,' you're going to expect a certain frenetic energy and verve, even if the feature focuses on a father who learns he has a teenage daughter. Jones was an English singer back in the '60s and '70s known more for her sex scandals than music, until she was immortalized by The Clash on their debut album. Her name evokes a certain rawness and energy, and as a namesake, a certain adoration of music. By alluding to The Clash immediately, one would expect an 'Almost Famous' drama where whimsy and love intermingle perfectly with musical nostalgia to create a film that not only tells a story, but evokes an engaging and lyrically lingering experience.
That's not exactly what you get with David M. Rosenthal's latest film. Though it is a highly personal tale inspired by his own personal experiences, it's not a musical injection of indie strength to help it stand up to a very similar and high-buzz tale that won the top prize at Venice recently -- Sofia Coppola's 'Somewhere.'
'Janie Jones' is the story of a young girl (Abigail Breslin) whose mother (Elisabeth Shue) abandons her at her dad (Alessandro Nivola) Ethan's rock show. The only problem -- Mom never told Dad that Janie existed. The eternal ne'er-do-well rocker, surviving on the generous help of his manager (Peter Stormare) and a band who puts up with a lot of crap (bandmates include Joel Moore from 'Avatar' and Frank Whaley), Ethan is now faced with a young life he's now responsible for. He doesn't embrace the news maturely, or even calmly. Like a large man child, he complains about the situation over and over, often within hearing distance of Janie. But as his poor behavior alienates everyone but his new-found daughter, Ethan finds a kindred spirit in this young girl, who not only inspires him to grow up and find some focus in his life, but also to get back to the music he's passionate about.
The film is inspired by writer/director Rosenthal's own experiences, meeting his daughter over a decade after she was born, and that certainly fueled the focus and method of the feature. Janie is the perfect daughter, who can be -- at once -- the blunt confidant, sweet little girl, strong support system, and well-behaved offspring. She is continually emotionally pummeled throughout the film, from being abandoned by mom, to hearing her dad question her existence over and over, but she never has any youthful rebellion -- just the occasional sad tear.
Luckily, Breslin brings Janie to life. Unlike actresses like Dakota Fanning, whose youthful roles always have this eerie maturity that battles against their age, Breslin is skilled at portraying maturity and youth in a realistic way. She is a very centered young woman, but she also evokes a relatable sweetness and idealism that keep Janie from being an over-the-top, idealized figure.
In fact, it is the women of 'Janie Jones' who bring the magic -- not the rock and roll and storyline. In only a handful of on-screen moments, Shue fully embodies the mess of a mother who loves her daughter, but just can't get her life in order. She's so good at this character that it's a shame she only has a few scenes. Likewise, Frances Fisher has a brief but powerful appearance as Ethan's mother, Lily. Though she's framed as the rich and emotionless mother figure, Fisher reveals a movie full of revelations in one brief scene.
But even with some stellar performances, 'Janie Jones' falls a bit flat of its potential. It plays out more like a road trip of dramatic pit stops rather than a fully fleshed out journey between father and daughter. There's an obvious passion for music in the film -- the film boasts an original soundtrack performed by Nivola and Breslin -- but it's not immersive and inspiring. Perhaps this is partially because a Cameron Crowe film like 'Singles' or 'Almost Famous' uses songs with feelings and nostalgia already interlaced into every lyrical line, but it's also the matter of the indie's weak link to the rock and roll of the past. When you name a film 'Janie Jones,' with a lead of the same name, the film is immediately coded in a way utterly different than the film's actual content. There's no frenetic Clash tunes fueling things, or any musical fire to the narrative. It's more folky and laid back, much like the Bob Dylan-loving Janie herself.
And, unfortunately, that will likely be the film's undoing as it faces Coppola's latest. It's a hard cinematic environment for indies as it is, and faced against a very similar story with a filmmaker known for evoking the right feel and musical fervor in her films, it'll be tough for 'Janie Jones' to make it big.