‘Janie Jones’: Musical connection

November 1, 2011

The name of the title character of “Janie Jones” is meant to resonate with a certain generation: “Oh, like the Clash song,” someone says early on in the film.

In fact, the film bears stronger echoes of “Crazy Heart,” which finally won Jeff Bridges his Oscar a couple of years back. But this small, effective film is unlikely to attract the kind of attention that Bridges’ film did.

Which is a shame, because “Janie Jones” (which opened Oct. 28) offers a nicely matched pair of performances, by Alessandro Nivola and young Abigail Breslin, whose chops as an actor obviously are maturing even as she grows into adolescence. Having broken through in “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, Breslin has worked steadily since then – and has found new characters to play, each a little different from the last.

In “Janie Jones,” she plays a girl whose mother Mary Ann (Elisabeth Shue) is in tough shape: strung out on meth, headed for rehab, with no place to park her 13-year-old daughter, Janie. So she dumps her with the father Janie’s never met: Ethan Brand (Nivola), a one-time rock star on the comeback trail, who is struggling to refloat his career.

Mary Ann does so unceremoniously, showing up backstage at a show in Little Rock just before Ethan’s band goes on. Ethan doesn’t remember her, doesn’t believe the kid is his and walks away from her. So Mary Ann simply splits, leaving Janie to fend for herself. Eventually, Ethan is persuaded to take custody, putting Janie on his tour bus.

But Ethan is obviously in a spiral as well: He fights with his drummer (Frank Whaley) about his playing in the middle of one show and, a day or so later, confronts his guitarist mid-set to accuse him of sleeping with Ethan’s girlfriend, the backup singer. That leads to an onstage fight, which becomes a YouTube sensation. That, in turns, leads to Ethan’s record label dropping the band and pulling the plug on support for the tour.

Even as Janie tries to stay out of the way, she ends up as Ethan’s only friend, as he alienates his other bandmates and must continue with the tour as a solo. Which gives him a lot of time to spend with the daughter he never met, who, it turns out, is a budding (and accomplished) singer-songwriter herself.

That’s really what David Rosenthal’s low-key, touching film is about: one man’s unexpected journey from solipsism to parenthood, from focusing only on his own wants and needs to a realization that, as a parent, his life isn’t about him exclusively. Rosenthal’s script avoids clichés, including the one where the father steps out of the way to turn his daughter into the next Taylor Swift. Instead, this film is about their feelings for each other, how they grow and deepen, rather than how this change in Ethan’s life leads to further plot points.

Nivola does a subtle job of stripping away Ethan’s layers, from cocky privileged star to struggling has-been and aspiring father. Breslin matches him step for step, playing Janie as guileless but surprisingly mature, a kid who wants to be a kid but who has learned to deal with life’s bumps (like Ethan’s arrest) as an adult with surprising resourcefulness.

It’s not a movie that will set anyone’s world on fire, but “Janie Jones” manages to be a movie about second chances that’s sweet (without being sugary) and tinged with regret.

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