In its favor, writer/director Bradley Rust Gray's teen girls in love horror movie is painfully, deeply earnest. About what, it tough to tell based on what ends up on screen, but it feels deeply sincere about the burgeoning love between butch and abrasive Jack (Riley Keough, "The Runaways") and and the addled--let's be nice and not say "ditzy"--Diane (Juno Temple, "The Dark Knight Rises"), even as their bodies are going through monstrous changes that threaten... something.
The problem is that the horror elements in "Jack and Diane" exist as a bait-and-switch to elevate a listless love story between two thoroughly vacant characters. It's a romance between mentally underdeveloped children, substituting brief flashes of expertly-crafted creature FX (and stop-motion sequences from the Quay Brothers) for any kind of deep understanding of its two leads.
Set over the span of a couple of days one New York summer, British teen Diane Lane (really) meets cute with Jack in a skate shop while lost in Manhattan. Jack lets Diane use her phone and falls for the bubbly blonde, who kind of uh, doesn't know much about much, but she knows she likes Jack who wears her boyish swagger like armor. Something in Diane causes her nose to bleed and some kind of deformed, fleshy creature to let loose when she gets overexcited about Jack, but don't worry, this goes absolutely nowhere.
As pretty as it is, "Jack and Diane" doesn't really have much to say beyond "hormones make teens a little nuts--young love, moreso." That would almost be an admirable line for the film to take--the original "Cat People" mined the same territory, substituting young love for the jealousy and passion of a scorned woman to deliver some effective thrills while "Beasts of the Southern Wild" used a little bit of magic here and there to show us how a poor little girl was able to find her strength (even as her world fell down around her). But the reactions that "Jack and Diane" is trying to evoke are a mismatch for what's on the screen. Brief flashes of tension thanks to--again, a well-designed, only partially-glimpsed monster--keep us wondering what terrible thing will happen to these characters because of their love.
The monster bits are one part of a mess of subplots and side bits including a mysterious twin sister, an important cassette tape, and the impending countdown to Diane leaving for fashion school in Paris. It would be at this point that I'd love to let the two leads off, saying neither one was given enough material to work with, but both actresses are uniformly terrible, Keough at some point apparently getting the note to play her character as though she was discovering each word (including the dirty ones) for the first time. Temple comes off a bit better--her character's a space cadet and she can handle that, but with her collection of babydoll dresses and mismatched clothes, she never feels like anything but a little girl playing dress up.
There's a wise (and frightening) movie about young love in "Jack and Diane," but Bradley Rust Gray didn't make it.
Unusual for an indie--particularly one from Magnolia Pictures.
"Jack and Diane" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD from Magnolia Pictures.