The anonymous critic who pegged Spinal Tap as "treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality" in This Is Spinal Tap could just as easily have been talking about The Ballad Of Jack & Rose. Then again, that seems to have been what writer-director Rebecca Miller had in mind when she conceived the film, a study in isolationism, unwieldy family dynamics, and countercultural idealism gone awry that could easily fill out a double bill with The Village, assuming that audiences didn't care to see a good film on either half of the bill.
Set on "an island somewhere off the East Coast of the United States" in 1986, Jack & Rose opens with a scene of a bee fertilizing a flower, then pans to a shot of a father (Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller's husband) relaxing with his daughter (Camilla Belle). At least it's easy to admire Miller's economy: The sequence sets the stage for a feature filled with heavy-handed symbolism and uncomfortable intimacies. The lone straggler at a failed commune, Day-Lewis lives a simple life of farming, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, and terrorizing a housing development going up on nearby wetlands. He schools his daughter himself, then relaxes with her on a couch when not trying to talk her out of one of her crying jags.
A weak heart has him living on borrowed time and Belle knows it, which makes her all the more resentful when he moves his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons (Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald) into the house. Belle channels her resentment by trying to seduce the chubby, obviously gay McDonald, then settling for the greasy Dano. As they have sex, a snake gets loose in the house; presumably, Miller entertained and dismissed the idea of having the couple snack on an apple before they sealed the deal.
Miller has a reasonably engaging, though overly mannered, sense of how to frame a shot. But in Jack & Rose, she's created an artful-looking disaster. In one scene, Belle gets a haircut, then, without a pause, walks into her father's bedroom and takes aim at Keener with a shotgun. Later, the film shuffles through themes of environmentalism and teen sexuality seemingly at random, while still pausing to deliver a good old-fashioned acid freak-out. Some good Bob Dylan songs are called in to underline the big moments, but end up eclipsing them instead. There's more drama and insight in a snippet of "One More Cup Of Coffee" than the entirety of Jack & Rose.