Bradley Rust Gray seems incapable of taking his films out of first gear. Perhaps emboldened by the festival success of 2009’s The Exploding Girl, a placid and low-key affair elevated by Zoe Kazan’s powerful central performance, Gray’s follow-up is the listless Jack and Diane, a teen romance with all the energy of a corpse. Billed as some sort of werewolf film with a twist, the closest thing fans of the movie monster will get to seeing him are occasional shots of hairy threads wriggling over messy internal organs, a bluntly on-the-nose representation of the raging and terrifying emotions that come with new love.
The only monstrous aspect of the film is the way in which Gray completely butchers natural charisma of his two leads, the generally untamed indie darling Juno Temple, and The Runaways’ Riley Keough. Temple, so dynamic in last year’s Dirty Girl, vanishes under Gray’s withdrawn approach. It’s maddening to watch her so reserved in such a charmless role, but perhaps it could be overlooked if we were ever given a reason to invest in any of these characters. Temple plays Diane, a blond British waif staying with her aunt in New York City. When we first meet her she’s dressed like a refugee from Alice in Wonderland, stumbling through the city with a bloody nose in search of a cell phone. Her search leads her into the orbit of Jack, a butch tomboy with a shock of dark hair and an obvious chip on her shoulder. Except when it comes to Diane, who she is immediately taken with. Gray indulges in the intimacy of their budding relationship, relishing every subtle touch and gesture, but neglects to go a step further by cementing a reason for them to be devoted to one another.
Diane’s nosebleeds, fainting spells, and severe social anxiety are just symptoms of the larger issue, which is that she apparently turns into a werewolf at the first sign of trouble. Jack doesn’t realize any of this, and blissfully ignores all of the other factors that would send a reasonable person looking for the nearest paramedic. Their commitment to one another is frequently put to the test in the most trivial of ways, as it’s clear Gray has no intention of ever separating the two. Diane’s aunt (Cara Seymour) reveals that she was always intended to fly back home in a few weeks, which temporarily pisses Jack off before it’s soon brushed aside. Jack gets smacked by a speeding car only to suffer a nasty gash on her face, but all we’re really left to be concerned about is the state of her cassette tape, which holds some sentimental value.
Very little of note truly happens, and Gray expects us to trust in the inevitability of their connection. Dialogue is mostly kept to a minimum as Gray focuses mostly on the physical, not a bad idea in and of itself, but there has to be a certain groundwork for it to feel significant. As a result, the chemistry between Temple and Keough as non-existent, and the story ambles from one stagnantly framed conversation to another. In a transparent attempt to pad out the runtime, a pointless subplot is concocted involving Diane’s twin and a sex cam video. The animated transformation scenes by the Quay Brothers are well-done but meaningless, although Gray does show some nice horror touches during one tense sequence where the two girls are inexplicably locked away in a basement. It’d have more resonance if the rest of Jack and Diane weren’t so empty.