If Benicio del Toro designed Hallmark cards, or if “Lady and the Tramp” were lesbians, they’d have a lot in common with “Jack & Diane,” a well-constructed, well-intentioned but too deliberate attempt to provoke the unprovokable. With sequences by the animating Quay Brothers at their gooiest, this New York fantasy from writer-director Bradley Rust Gray (“The Exploding Girl”) doesn’t quite congeal, though it may outrage people who are unaware of gay teenagers or the grotesque possibilities of anatomically inclined special effects. Gay fests will bite.
For a film so in thrall to New York, “Jack & Diane” (a John Mellencamp song) represents something of a hatchet job. As she makes her way around Manhattan, Diane (Juno Temple), a British teen on a summer tour, is verbally abused by just about everyone she meets, although part of the problem may be her Raggedy Ann wardrobe — that, and the fact that the voice of Blossom Dearie seems to be trailing her around town.
Diane may be a wide-eyed naif, but the general impression is that of caricature. The retro portrayal of New York suggests a period piece, something punctuated by the appearance of Jack (Riley Keough), who carries a skateboard and a bad-girl attitude, like a refugee from “Kids.”
The electricity generated by Diane and Jack, who come together as if wearing Velcro jumpers, is convincing enough; Temple and Keough don’t give performances so much as they play people giving performances (which is, in fact, not a bad definition of adolescence). Their love affair unfolds in all its transgressive hipness and, in line with Gray’s vision of New York, no one seems to have noticed that things have changed in the last 30 years. When Jack, oblivious and in love, gets hit by a cab, its passenger, as if stepping out of an early ’70s sitcom or a play by Jules Pfeiffer, says, “Give her 20 bucks,” and they leave Jack bloodied, if unbowed. (If this is intended as allegory, it falls short.)
The Quays’ stuff — glistening hanks of hair, viscous fluids, slime, scum and mucus membranes — are meant to suggest the turmoil, both physical and emotional, going on within the girls, but it all seems rather precious. Startling and very Freudian monsters appear and, on occasion, eat people, but one shouldn’t be quite so aware of what the film is doing and why, especially in a work that otherwise tries so hard to knead the surfaces of emotional memory and adolescent desire.