Catherine Keener as Kathleen
Daniel Day-Lewis as Jack
Camilla Belle as Rose
Paul Dano as Thadius
Ryan McDonald as Rodney
Beau Bridges as Marty Rance
Anna Mae Clinton as Young Rose
Jason Lee as Gray
Jena Malone as Red Berry
Rebecca Miller shows further growth as an independent filmmaker with The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a special film full of colorful characters that spring to life thanks to an amazing ensemble cast
It’s 1986, and Jack (Daniel Day Lewis) is a hippie living alone with his teen daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) on an island commune away from the rest of the world. Their strong bond shows signs of erosion when Jack asks his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) to move in with him, bringing her troubled sons from different fathers along with her. Having had almost no interaction with the outside world, Rose rebels against her father in ways that he could never have imagined.
With The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Rebecca Miller’s skills as a screenwriter and filmmaker take a giant leap forward from the digitally shot Personal Velocity, since it allows her to tell a more complex tale using more characters. It’s more than a typical coming-of-age story, because it’s only on one level about Rose and her discovery that there’s more to life than just her father. It’s also a story about human growth and how the relationship between father and daughter evolve once the rest of the world is allowed into it. While this sort of relationship has been explored before, it’s never been done quite like this. It’s the perfect set-up for Miller to create a half dozen disparate characters, put them into a house together and see what happens.
At the start of the film, Jack and Rose are living peacefully on their own island haven. Jack is a hard-nosed former hippie, who remained at his 60s commune after everyone else left. Twenty years later, his greatest challenge is to keep the rest of the world away, something that becomes harder when a land developer begins building houses not far from his hillside home. Thanks to Jack’s best efforts and intentions, Rose has lived an isolated life away from the rest of the world, making her far more naïve and less jaded than other girls her age. When Jack’s recurring heart problems get worse, he asks his girlfriend Kathleen to live with them, putting in jeopardy the perfect life he has set up with Rose. It’s not bad enough that Jack never told Rose about Kathleen, but the new extended family immediately promises to disrupt their lives. Rose uses the opportunity to discover stuff that she has been missing, like sex. After failing to seduce the older brother Rodney, a sensitive overweight teen who’d rather style her hair than sleep with her, she ends up sleeping with his problematic brother Thaddeus, who doesn’t have any reservations about taking her virginity.
The intricacies of the relationships and the character dynamics is what makes this film so special, and so unique from more conventional family dramas. Miller handles the characters in a way that allows you to accept their quirks or eccentricities without judgment. Her dialogue is solid, every bit as good as her playwright father Arthur, making all of the interactions seem very natural and real. The tone of the film never gets too dark or somber, because there are plenty of humorous and joyful moments in between the fighting.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Miller was able to get one of the best actors working outside the Hollywood studio system–her husband Daniel Day Lewis–to take on the role of Jack. Not only is he the perfect actor to play this stubborn, highly idealistic character, but it’s the type of Oscar worthy role for which you can only hope he’ll get recognition if only so that it’s not another five years before we see him on screen.
Not that the other half of the film’s title is chopped liver. Far from being upstaged, Camilla Belle is able to hold her own to Lewis in her first major starring role as the precocious and naïve Rose. Belle gives off just the right amount of youth and innocence to make her character believable, her ability as an actress equally her captivating beauty, which Miller uses to the fullest. In one scene, Belle stands atop a cliff with the wind blowing through her long flowing hairbefore it’s cut into a short bob later. It doesn’t serve much in moving the story further, but it’s a memorable image that helps define her character.
Outside of the two leads, the most pleasant surprise is the performance by another newcomer, Ryan McDonald as Rodney, an introverted teen who has issues with his body and his sexuality. Catherine Keener plays another rather complex and not particularly likeable character, who berates Rodney because of his weight. She obviously favors her more problematic child Thaddeus, who is played by the young star of L.I.E. , Paul Dano. Her conflict with Rose is a classic case of Elektra complex, and her motivations for moving in with them always seem a bit questionable.
Jason Lee has a small part as a shy gardener friend of Jack’s, and he is surprisingly good playing against type, as is Jena Malone, who is almost unrecognizable with her short, spiky blond hair. Beau Bridges also makes an appearance as the developer trying to build houses on the island, leading to a number of pivotal confrontations with Jack.
A possible reason why these performances ring so much truer than similar dramas is that Miller filmed the movie sequentially, something not done too often for cost reasons. This method allowed the actors to develop their characters as the story progressed rather than jumping around between scenes. That said, the film tends to meander a bit in the middle, as it doesn’t seem clear where Miller wants to go with things, but by the end, she is able to wrap up the various characters’ arcs quite convincingly.
Most importantly, Miller gets away from the grainy video she used for her last movie, and it makes a huge difference in how much better this follow-up looks, because film lends itself better to the gorgeous shots of the perfect island location Miller found to represent Jack and Rose’s commune retreat.