At its core the story of a hippie forced to deal with his daughter’s coming-of-age and his own mortality, “The Ballad of Jack & Rose” gets caught up in incidental distractions that lead the drama astray. Well-wrought individual scenes and sharply focused acting provide Rebecca Miller’s third feature with a measure of gravity, but too much abrupt, even melodramatic behavior and undigested psychological matter leave nagging dissatisfactions. Daniel Day-Lewis’ name will boost this to a minor career on the specialized circuit.
A Scottish countercultural idealist who years back helped found a commune on a sparsely populated U.S. Eastern seaboard island, Jack Slavin (Day-Lewis) by 1986 has seen everyone leave the compound except for his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle). Jack has allowed Rose very little contact with the outside world, homeschooling her, allowing no television or other cultural contamination and generally considering her a prize exception to the general decline in human standards.
Emotionally, they could scarcely be more connected, and physically perhaps are a shade too close for comfort. Jack has put all of himself into making Rose the blossoming woman she is becoming, and Rose reciprocates by insisting she’d want to die if anything happened to her dad, which his deteriorating body suggests might soon occur.
Heading over to the mainland for a poke with g.f. Kathleen (Catherine Keener), Jack throws Rose for a loop by returning to announce that Kathleen and her two teenage sons will be moving in on a trial basis. Fathered by different, long gone men, the boys are quite different; the older Rodney (Ryan McDonald, outstanding) is an overweight, delightfully articulate aspiring hairdresser, while Thaddius (Paul Dano) is trouble, a pot-smoking punk who brings a disturbing element onto the island.
Feeling betrayed by her father, whose bedroom activities are hard to muffle in the small, homemade house, Rose bluntly asks Rodney to deflower her. Adroitly demurring, he suggests instead that he cut her beautiful long hair, an idea Rose embraces, in her first act of rebellion.
At one point, Jack confesses to Kathleen that, “I made a mess of a lot of things in my life, and I don’t have time to pay for them.” Jack’s assessment of the high ideals and rigorous beliefs by which he’s lived would seem to lie at the heart of the film’s concerns. But Miller, who’s married to Day-Lewis, offers frustratingly little further introspection on Jack’s part, no reflection on what he might have done differently, if his radical notions were misguided, and what consequences they might be having on Rose.
Instead, script becomes overly busy with the teenagers, as extreme incidents pile up — Rose taking a rifle shot at Kathleen; Rose letting Thaddius have sex with her, then hanging the blood-stained sheet outside to rile her father; a Copperhead snake getting loose in the house, and Jack going on a bulldozing rampage against a local housing developer (Beau Bridges), hardly mature behavior on the part of a man one is encouraged to consider so principled.
Also hobbling the picture is its worst scene. In a geodesic “acid house” on the property, Rose tries to recreate a psychedelic experience with a three-projector display of the commune’s old home movies, humiliating her father in the process and fermenting a fight that puts an end to Jack’s final experiment in group living.
As was the case with the Parker Posey episode in Miller’s previous film, “Personal Velocity,” it’s hard not to think the writer-director is still working through generational, dominance and control issues relating to her eminent father, playwright Arthur Miller, given the intense father-daughter tug-of-war being dissected.
All the same, some of the writing is tart and perceptive, and each member of the excellent cast has a strong bead on his or her character. Skinny as a rail and sporting a virtually undiluted Scots accent despite Jack’s many years in the U.S., Day-Lewis is utterly credible as a fierce altruist still too young to be a truly resolved man.
As a woman who could use some help with two teenagers, Keener gives Kathleen an emotionally unguarded quality that marks a refreshing change of pace from her sometimes jaundiced characters, and the aptly named Belle is excellent in the pivotal role of Rose.
Shot on Super 16 on Prince Edward Island on the Canadian East Coast, pic enjoys a bracing, fresh-weather feel.