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Flawed ‘Ballad’ may get under your skin

Story of a father and daughter who live on an abandoned commune. By Christie Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jack and Rose live an intensely insular life on an island off the East Coast. Their days consist of gardening, talking and lying on their backs in the soft, green grass, holding each other and trying to figure out what shapes the clouds resemble.

As romantic and intimate as this may sound, the fresh-faced Rose is actually Jack’s daughter, and she’s 16. Having lived in an abandoned commune with her idealistic father, who has sheltered her almost completely from an outside world that he perceives as deteriorating beyond repair in the year 1986, she has an innocence that makes her seem even younger.

Rebecca Miller’s “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” follows Rose (Camilla Belle) as she grows into a young woman and Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he shrinks into a dying man, and she chronicles their unusually close relationship as it shifts under the strain of introducing new people to their lives.

As writer-director, she accomplishes this with languid rhythms that soothe and hypnotize and, as she did in 2002’s “Personal Velocity,” camerawork that provides the intimacy of a documentary. The hand-held photography and natural light also accentuate the sharp, stubbled facial features and steely blue-gray eyes of Day-Lewis, Miller’s husband.

As the film’s crunchy granola, father-daughter duo, he and Belle offer believably lived-in performances — as do Catherine Keener as Jack’s girlfriend and Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald as her disparate sons — which elevate what reveals itself to be a contrived premise with ultimately unbelievable results.

Jack, a Scotsman dying of heart disease, shows up one day at the home of his quasi-girlfriend for the past four months, Kathleen, and asks her to move in and help take care of him.

“My kid needs a woman around the place and so do I,” he explains, since Rose’s mother left them long ago.

And so Kathleen arrives with her two boys from two different fathers: the dangerous Thadius (Dano), long-haired and wiry like a refugee from a Def Leppard concert, and the heavyset Rodney (McDonald), who’s sensitive and articulate and provides a bemused source of comic relief, something this melancholy “Ballad” desperately needs.

Never having heard of Kathleen, much less her sons or the “experiment” to have them move in (as Jack calls it), Rose naturally feels deceived and betrayed. She lashes out in increasingly volatile ways: by allowing Rodney, an aspiring hairdresser, to shear her long, brown locks; by trying to seduce both Thadius and Rodney with varying results; by pointing a shotgun at Jack and Kathleen in bed.

Kathleen makes awkward attempts to be a friend/mother figure to Rose, and Keener brings her to life with a damaged vulnerability that’s palpable.

But as the mayhem mounts en route to the film’s climax, the early realism of “Jack and Rose” sadly falls away. In one of the most forced scenes, Rose sets up a multimedia presentation in a domed “acid house” on the commune complex, a mix of film clips and music intended to humiliate Jack in front of their new, makeshift family.

Later, Jack drives a bulldozer into the model home at a generic suburban complex that’s under construction, which seems like implausible behavior for a noble man we’re supposed to respect.

Despite the film’s flaws, though, you may find that “Jack and Rose” have gotten under your skin and lodged themselves there with an unexpected, uneasy grace.