A bravura performance by Samantha Mathis grounds the gritty, unusual relationship drama “Sweet Jane.” The often searing street saga is played to the hilt, but the script goes soft and loses credibility in the end. Still, there’s enough raw truth here to attract niche theatrical dates and secure cable playoff.
Jane (Mathis) is an unrepentant drug addict in the throes of an overdose as the picture opens. In hospital, a doctor gives her the dire prognosis that she’s HIV-positive and will be run through a series of tests. But the young woman opts to slip out to the streets.
Unbeknownst to her, critically ill teenager Tony (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is dogging her trail. He adopts a puppy’s loyalty, bringing her donuts when she becomes ill from drugs and abetting her when she steals to support her habit. Eventually it’s revealed that the boy is dying of AIDS and that he’s gravitated to Jane as a surrogate mother. Though the affection is genuine, it’s admittedly an instance of the closest emotional port in a storm.
It’s difficult to swallow the story’s development of the relationship and its preordained tragic consequences. The urgency and momentum of the duo’s desperate life on the mean streets of L.A. dissipates once they move into a posh hotel with money lifted from a convenience store. At the same time, Tony’s condition takes an irreversible turn for the worse, and Jane’s efforts to soothe his suffering shift to the sentimental, misguided and destructive.
Largely a two-hander, “Sweet Jane” is elevated by the central performances, particularly that of Mathis in the title part. Filmmaker Joe Gayton puts her character through hell, and she braves addiction and withdrawal with a warrior’s resolve that’s at once disturbing and sympathetic. Gordon-Levitt seems an equally game actor, although his choices here are considerably more limited.
Made on a shoestring, the picture wisely focuses on performance. An emotional roller-coaster ride, “Sweet Jane” excels at navigating sudden dramatic peaks and valleys but pulls up to the gate a little too snug and cozy.