Blu-ray Review: Jack & Diane

It has nothing to do with "a little ditty" by John Mellencamp, nor is it a werewolf flick. It is, however, a showcase for two fine actresses.

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Following a troubled preproduction history that saw the recasting of its two leads, Jack & Diane landed in all of two cinemas in November, 2012. It deserves to find a much wider audience now that it’s available on home video. It gained a misleading reputation as a “lesbian werewolf” film; a kind of romance-horror hybrid. I understand that many people love to shorthand things, but that label doesn’t do writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s intriguing film any favors.

Upon viewing Jack & Diane, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s neither of those things. Yes, Jack (Riley Keough) and Diane (Juno Temple) are young lesbian lovers. However, the way their relationship is handled, the film doesn’t require the “lesbian film” tag any more than, for example, The Notebook would need to be labeled “heterosexual film.” The orientation of the title characters is more or less incidental to the proceedings. This isn’t a “coming out” film, à la The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, as no one so much as bats an eye at the same-sex couple.

As for the “werewolf” element, for one thing it’s not even an actual werewolf. Diane hallucinates and/or dreams of herself as a misshapen beast. While symbolic of the teen’s increasing sexual appetite, there is no literal monster in this film. Anyone expecting straightforward horror elements is bound to be disappointed. The admittedly quite frightening monstrosity only rears its disfigured head a few times. More often we see the bizarre internal manifestation of Diane’s raging hormones, with stop-motion animated hair tangled around tendons and arteries. It’s visually interesting and adds a Cronenberg-esque queasiness to the otherwise realistic drama.

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The film opens with Diane, briefly staying with her aunt in New York before leaving for higher education in France, wandering into a shop hoping to use a phone. There she meets Jack, a worldlier teen around her age, and they bond almost immediately. From that point on, they enjoy a very brief relationship, one that manages to be on-again, off-again during a short time span. There isn’t much to the plot. In fact, I found myself wondering where it was all headed for most of the running time before I realized the answer was pretty much nowhere. That might seem like a criticism, but it shouldn’t be taken as such. Jack & Diane is a collection of small, subtle moments. The film’s atmosphere and deliberate pacing becomes hypnotic over time. I’ll be quite honest and admit that while I watched, I didn’t think I liked it. Once it ended, I wanted to watch it all over again.

Much of that is due to the quality of the central performances. This is a two-woman show all the way, despite the presence of Kylie Minogue in a supporting role so inconsequential it could’ve been excised without adverse effect to the film. Keough, the drop-dead stunning daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, has been remarkably de-glammed to portray the tomboyish Jack. In fact, due to Jack being struck by a taxi while bicycling early on, she’s saddled with unflattering scabs across her face for most of the movie. Her work is incredibly naturalistic, initially displaying Jack’s outward confidence but eventually revealing her inner vulnerability. Temple is equally mesmerizing as the far more girlish Diane. She manages to make Diane’s staggering naivety entirely believable. She and Jack aren’t really in love—they don’t have enough time together for that—but they believe they are. So passionate are Keough and Temple in their roles, they make the viewer believe it too.

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It has been argued that the horror elements are not effectively woven into the story, but I think they add a distinctive touch of surrealism that subtly counterbalances the fly-on-the-wall realism. A subplot involving Diane’s twin sister feels a bit like deadweight, never truly naturally meshing even though it does play a significant (and surprising) role in the arc of Jack and Diane’s relationship. See it for the performances of its two young stars and the sometimes unsettling vibe that director Gray infuses throughout his simple story.

Jack & Diane was shot on 35mm film and the 1080p transfer retains a film-like appearance. Clarity is strong throughout, nicely representing Anne Misawa’s cinematography. Much of the film has a nearly documentary look to it. As a result the visuals are sometimes kind of plain. But that’s not a knock against the transfer, which boasts deep, solid blacks and often vivid colors. The high definition presentation delivers throughout.

That goes for the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which makes great use of silence, particularly during the monster scenes when sudden surround effects snap the trance-like quiet. The score by múm is one of the most unique I’ve heard recently. The ambient music is placed unpredictably within the surround spectrum, providing easily the most consistently interesting rear speaker elements. My one caveat while praising the audio is that occasionally the mumbled dialogue could’ve used a boost during noisier scenes.

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Unfortunately there’s very little supplemental material. I would’ve been interested in a Bradley Rust Gray commentary track, but for whatever reasons it wasn’t to be. The most substantial extra is a ten-minute featurette with the creator of Diane’s beastly alter ego. It does provide a detailed look at the intricately designed monster, only glimpsed in shadows in the finished film. There’s also a five-minute promo piece that includes the usual mix of film and interview clips. And that’s all she wrote.

While it may be a little too low-key for many viewers, this tender exploration of young lust is worth seeking out. Riley Keough and Juno Temple make Jack & Diane (which bears no connection to the famed John Mellencamp hit of the same name) a hypnotic viewing experience.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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