The Irish indie musical Once obviously had an effect on American audiences and, perhaps more so, American filmmakers. In the years since its 2007 release, several movies have attempted to retell the story of two good-hearted people bonding, and maybe falling in love, over music made with acoustic guitars (this list includes director John Carney’s own Once follow-up, Begin Again). Ami Canaan Mann’s Jackie & Ryan belongs to this subgenre, with the American West playing the part claimed in the past by Dublin or sections of New York. The Utah setting is its primary novelty.
Like the hero of Once, Ryan (Ben Barnes) is a busker with faint dreams of doing something bigger; unlike anyone in Once (or Begin Again or Song One), he is also a genuine rail-riding hobo, albeit of the handsome, polite, and fairly well-connected variety. As the movie begins, he’s hopping a train to Utah to meet up with friends on his way to Portland. His stopover includes some busking time, which is how he meets Jackie (Katherine Heigl). She stops to admire his music, nod thoughtfully, and then hassle him about why he isn’t performing his own material (mostly he does old folk songs).
This is a puzzling conversational turn in the moment, but it turns out she’s asking because Jackie, improbably enough, used to be a recording artist with a major-label contract. In the midst of a painful, contentious divorce from her moneyed husband, she has retreated back to her hometown with her tweenage daughter Lia (Emily Alyn Lind) in tow. She could also, as it turns out, use the gentle, unobtrusive love of a good hobo. Not wanting to confirm any cruel hobo stereotypes, Mann makes it clear that Ryan is honorable, sensitive, and hard-working; Jackie’s mother is wary, but Lia takes an instant liking to him, and he also does roofing work for free. This is to say that Jackie & Ryan, like its slightly less twangy cousins, is not a traditionally exciting movie; even the traffic accident that brings the title characters closer together is pretty low-stakes.
It’s also not much of a paean to the creative process—which the movie portrays as something that just kinda happens when people sit around a porch or a street corner long enough—or even a rail-riding primer for prospective musical hobos. But Mann, daughter of director Michael Mann, finds some beauty in pokiness: the physical beauty of a recurring shot that finds various characters sitting, backs to the camera, in front of the vast Utah skyline; and the narrative beauty of a movie that doesn’t amp up its melodrama. The downshifting gives Heigl a nice break from bad studio movies and bad indie imitations of studio movies. She’s not especially convincing as either a guitar-toting folkie or an ex-star—her natural pragmatism doesn’t make her the easiest fit as a sensitive artist, even one who’s been spit out by the industry—but she works so well as a tough single mom that she makes most of her signature movie roles look like miscasting in retrospect.
Where Jackie & Ryan fails the low-key Once formula, though, is in its emotional urgency (or lack thereof). The section of the movie that should offer a climactic rush, however fleeting, feels instead more like falling action, or even a postscript. The cross-cutting duet it builds to, with two people singing the same song separated by hundreds of miles, is a nice musical moment, but just that: a moment. Ideally, even a low-key romantic drama should have more than one.