Make Edward Cullen a lipstick lesbian with werewolf tendencies and change Bella Swan into an androgynous, hipster lesbian, and you’ll get an idea of what “Jack and Diane” is about. That might sound reductive, but neither fish nor fowl, this romantic drama with allegorical and horror-movie trappings is really rather facile and languorous. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray (2009’s “The Exploding Girl”) had this edgy project in development since 2003, with Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby being initially attached, so at least it’s an interesting failure from a passionate, serious-minded filmmaker. If only it had something to do with John Mellencamp’s catchy 1982 hit song.
While spending the summer in New York City, wide-eyed, British 17-year-old Diane (Juno Temple) goes out one day without her wallet, loses her phone, and then has a nose bleed. A skateboarding tomboy named Jack (Riley Keough) takes her in and gets her into a club, where they immediately form a connection. Both girls seem damaged, which might be what keeps them together, until Jack learns Diane is leaving for school in Paris very soon.
The problems with “Jack and Diane” begin with Jack and Diane. Neither character is fully formed. Jack listens to Yazoo’s “Only You” on her retro cassette player because it reminds her of her brother who committed suicide. Diane seems lost in life, has a twin sister that she calls a lot, and talks back to her Aunt Linda (Cara Seymour), even though the aunt is letting her stay with her for the summer. When Jack demands to know more about Diane, we feel the same way for both. Together, these girls are so inarticulate that oftentimes they just stare at one another in silence, or one will earnestly say, “I want to unzip my body and put you in there.” First love or not, the stakes are unimaginably low.
Then there’s the werewolf angle, which is supposed to be taken as a metaphor for Diane’s sexual awakening. It’s merely a device, more pretentious and heavy-handed than contemplative, and never explored with any depth. Created by twin-brother animators Stephen and Timothy Quay, the strangely whimsical stop-motion opening credits and interludes with hair and organs are visually unique and evocative of a fairy tale. Relying on long takes, Anne Misawa’s cinematography is also quite lovely and intimate.
Temple and Keough strike a few candid, tender notes but aren’t asked to do much more than what Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have had to do for four movies, staring longingly into each other’s eyes. In fact, Keough with dark, butch hair looks like a blend of Milla Jovovich and Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett from “The Runaways (which Keough co-starred in). Had this been the feature debut for both talented actresses, no charisma would be found in either.
In one scene, Aussie recording artist Kylie Minogue shows up for no reason as one of Jack’s lovers and then disappears. Dane DeHaan, who’s proven to be a real talent in “Chronicle” and “Lawless,” doesn’t even have a character to work with, but playing a friend of Jack’s, his mere trait is what he does for a living: photoshopping pornographic photos on the web. The only connection with DeHaan’s “character” is to introduce a subplot involving Diane’s twin Karen (Temple), who had the misfortune of being humilated and assaulted by two frat boys online, but even that carries little importance in the long run.
Gray attempting to convey first love as a hairy beast is intriguing, but he needed to trim the dead air between the two titular characters and actually make them characters. For a film that is left open to intrepreation, “Jack and Diane” doesn’t earn such a conclusion. It’s emotionally remote and just plain curious, so what is there to think about when very little has been told?
110 min., rated R.
Grade: C –