There was a time when a major studio might have made “Jackie & Ryan,” a wholesome, female-skewing heartland romance, with a Sandra Bullock in the lead and reaped the profits; today, it’s a wing-and-a-prayer festival film that marks Katherine Heigl’s introduction to independent cinema. That’s more of a knock on the shifting biases of mainstream audiences than it is on the ample cornball charms of Ami Canaan Mann’s third feature, which casts Heigl as a hard-up single mother and former country star who’s brought out of her shell by dreamy, drifting busker Ben Barnes. Mellow, digestibly sweet and embellished with lovely folk tunes, this modest bit of Americana reveals pleasing new sides of both leads, and merits a carefully targeted release from a nurturing distributor.
The Venice Lido is a curious place to unveil a not-especially-arty film this cozily American in flavor and focus. Everything about “Jackie & Ryan” (filmed under the initial title “Your Right Mind”) seems geared more toward a Sundance berth, right down to its picturesque setting in the snow-dusted hills of Utah. Then again, the British-born Mann (daughter of Michael) has a friendly relationship with the Mostra, having premiered her sophomore feature, “Texas Killing Fields,” in the 2011 competition — widely deemed a premature honor for a genre pic of no great distinction. Bowing in the lower-pressure Horizons strand, the new film fortunately represents a significant improvement on “Fields”: Shooting at its most ambitious for the honest humanism of Martin Ritt, and at its least for the fuzzy comforts of Forest Whitaker’s “Hope Floats,” it’s an unpretentious work that at least seems comfortable with its frequent dips into cliche.
Some cliches, after all, are classics, as with the film’s introduction of lightning-fingered guitarist and singer Ryan Brenner (Barnes) as a cloth-capped train-hopper on the northbound cross-country line, carrying his dreams and little else in a battered guitar case. The spirit of manifest destiny, it would appear, is alive and well in tangle-haired folksters wishing to spread their music into the country’s farthest reaches. Ryan puts his roving on pause, however, to touch down in the Christmas-card town of Ogden, Utah, the home of a former collaborator — who, as the man’s patient wife (Clea DuVall, underused but affecting) informs him, has recently decided to go wandering himself. One can practically hear the film sighing over musicians: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, but they sure as heck can’t live with you.
Another case study for that theory is Jackie Laurel (Heigl), a one-time recording sensation whose life of limos and New York condos has recently downshifted to one of maxed-out credit cards, desperate job-hunting and a room in her mother’s house. Ogden, she tells her unconvinced, uprooted daughter Lia (Emily Alyn Lynd) is “a nice place to be from” — which may sound like cold comfort, but it’s a sentiment typical of the film’s rustic optimism. Quite how or why Jackie’s career has tumbled so drastically is never made explicit in Mann’s script, though it would appear that an expensive impending divorce and toxic custody battle for Lia has much to do with it. It’s not exactly the best time to fall hard for a homeless singer-songwriter on his way to Portland, but she’s powerless to resist Ryan’s sculpted almond eyes and warm, whiskeyed croon when she spots him strumming on the street. A meet-cute mishap culminates in her taking him home for dinner; against the advice of her mother Miriam (a tart Sheryl Lee), he stays the night, and then another, and then another.
Nothing of great surprise or consequence happens in “Jackie & Ryan,” which doesn’t go out of its way to suggest that the two title characters — attractive and appealingly matched as they are — are necessarily soul mates. Rather, they appear to offer each other the company they need at simultaneously vulnerable points in their lives. In this and several other respects, Mann’s film recalls John Carney’s pair of marvelous muso romances, “Once” and this year’s “Begin Again,” though it lacks their bittersweet resonance. Nor does it employ its songs (several of them wood-smoked folk standards) to quite such deft, revealing narrative effect, pleasant as they are to hear. The film’s climactic musical number, however, is an original: Written by Ryan (and, in the real world, by the film’s composer Nick Hans) to reflect both his and Jackie’s trajectories, it’s a gruffly sentimental piece that delivers the required emotional finish.
Barnes and Heigl, who last shared screen space in the execrable romantic comedy “The Big Wedding,” make for a happier union here, striking enough sparks off each other to sustain a gentle, PG-rated chemistry. Heigl’s natural flintiness has come off as rigid or even chilly in some of her past starring vehicles, but the lower-key demands of Mann’s film bring out her intelligence and responsiveness as a performer. British thesp Barnes, his male-model features shamelessly lapped up by the camera from the opening frame onwards, is also as limber and likeable as he’s yet appeared on screen, his native accent convincingly hidden behind a middle-American husk. Both stars also do their own impressive singing, their voices imperfect but characterful enough to carry the film’s rootsy soundtrack.
Non-musical techs are all serviceable. Duane Manwiller’s lensing can be too dark in some of the interior scenes, but he knows his way around the woozy, streaked sky of a Utah sunrise — one of many familiar romantic indulgences in “Jackie & Ryan” for which Mann makes, and owes, no apology.