A sort of cross between “Crazy Heart” and “Paper Moon,” David M. Rosenthal’s third feature centers on a fading, self-destructive midcareer musician abruptly saddled with a young girl who claims to be his daughter. With stars Alessandro Nivola and Abigail Breslin creditably singing and playing guitar as well as delivering solid performances, this drama — which soft-pedals without quite transcending some familiar contrivances — looks to get the kind of decent but unexceptional critical support that’s unlikely to add B.O. buzz. Prospects are modest, with cable sales down the road probably brightest.
Thirteen-year-old Janie (Breslin) is to be deposited for a spell in the care of her father, moderately famous alt-rocker Ethan Brand (Nivola), while her mother Mary Ann (Elisabeth Shue, in a bookend role) kicks her various addictions for good — or so mom claims. Problem is, mom’s backstage visit is unannounced, and the typically snotty star, figuring his alleged paternity is just a money-grab, says he doesn’t remember her.
So Mary Ann simply abandons her child at the concert venue and disappears. When police are called, Ethan and Janie have a choice between his custody and the state’s, although he’s warned that since his name is duly on her birth certificate, shirking responsibility might trigger legal hassles that will seriously screw up his touring schedule.
As a result, Janie is very reluctantly let on the bus shared by Ethan’s band — lead guitar Billy (Rodney Eastman), bassist Dave (Joel David Moore), drummer Chuck (Frank Whaley), keyboardist Iris (Brittany Snow) — plus long-suffering manager Sloan (Peter Stormare). All have suffered quite enough after years of Ethan’s trigger temper and heavy drinking. After a particularly embarrassing onstage outburst becomes a YouTube sensation, his label dumps him, and band members soon follow.
With no other options, Ethan decides to keep his road dates as a solo act — well, semi-solo, since it’s been discovered that Janie is a budding singer-songwriter herself — and besides, her “cute kid” intervention at the mic saves him from a beatdown from some local yokels. More emergencies are to come, though of course by this point the two have evolved from mutual wariness to a mutually beneficial, sorta-kinda-parental relationship.
Nivola is good as an insensitive, impulsive, sometimes insufferable rock star well past being able to use youth as an excuse for reckless indulgence. Breslin, transitioning nicely into teen roles, successfully pulls off the smart mouth and adult resourcefulness Rosenthal’s script lends once Janie gets over her initial skittishness — elements that might easily have come off as stock movie precociousness. Both actors sing capably (she still with adolescent reediness), and the songs penned respectively for each character by Eef Barzelay of indie outfit Clem Snide and Irish singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes are credible in dramatic context if not particularly memorable.
Still, despite the pic’s assets and overall restraint, a whiff of cliched deja vu remains. When Ethan is forced to beg funds from his estranged family, Frances Fisher gets stuck in a stereotypical role as the snooty society mom who still thinks him uncouth. And it’s all too predictable that whenever Janie overhears a conversation, it’s along the wounding lines of, “She’s got to go. I don’t even think she’s my daughter.” Likewise, whenever someone stumbles upon her, she’s trilling a damn-good-for-13 song she wrote all by her little self. There’s never any doubt where the pic is headed. If it finally achieves a modicum of poignancy, the impact surely would have been greater if the whole felt fresher.
Packaging is unobtrusively pro.