Pornographers and young-adult novelists alike would slap their foreheads in exasperation over Jack & Diane, the dreamy, abstract art movie writer-director Bradley Rust Gray made from the ripely commercial premise of a teenage lesbian werewolf romance. Starring Juno Temple as the English Diane and Riley Keough as the butch New Yorker Jack, Jack & Diane uses lycanthropy as symbol rather than fuel for a Sapphic Twilight spinoff, presenting flashes of attacking beasts and quivering viscera between scenes of the two heroines falling in love in a desperate but unsupernatural teenage fashion. Werewolves aren’t a new metaphor for the wildness of adolescent urges, but Jack & Diane is a trudgingly self-serious affair that doesn’t manage to be transporting on either its literal or conceptual levels.
Temple and Keough encounter each other in a store and get together shortly afterward in a bar bathed in the red that’s splashed throughout the film with a heavy hand. Their connection is deep and intense, but Temple is only in town for a few more days before she has to head off to school in Paris, and Keough tries to distance herself from her new love when she finds out. The pair’s falling together, pulling apart, and returning to each other’s arms forms the main arc of this minimal film, which, like Gray’s more cohesive last work, The Exploding Girl, is told in intimate close-ups filled with rich sensory detail and set against a city that can seem overwhelming. In spite of the attention the camera pays them, neither of the leads stands out; the characters they play remaining stilted.
Animated interludes from the Brothers Quay show braided hair moving through internal organs, which seems meant to suggest the emotional vulnerability and potential for heartache that comes with romance at the protagonists’ age. Like the monster that pops up in dream sequences and the sudden nosebleeds that afflict both characters, these touches come across as affect by contrast with the deliberately juvenile, mundane details of the pair’s love affair, as they discuss peeing in pools, eat sushi with ketchup, and say things like “Pity sucks.” With romantic leads that read as little more than rough sketches themselves, the film’s delvings into allegory don’t bring any more resonance to its pretty but empty portrait of first love, other than to show that heartbreak can be just as painful when it involves someone actually ripping out your heart.