Rebecca Miller's latest film, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," is remarkably intimate, almost too much so. The camera often clings closely to the actors and even the subject matters - death, family and teenage sexuality to name a few - are extremely personal.
How does a young talent like Miller balance it all? Good genes. The daughter of the late famous playwright Arthur Miller ("Death of a Salesman"), Rebecca is skilled enough to balance all aspects from dialogue and character arc to setting and visualization with only minor stumbles along the way.
"The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is set in 1986 and tells the story of a non-traditional family, comprised of father Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle), who live in the relics of a commune off of the East Coast. While the commune thrived in the 1960s, its heyday has long since passed and perhaps the same could be said for Jack, who is dying of an unmentioned disease (my money is on lung cancer given the inordinate amount of cigarettes he smokes throughout the film).
Despite the odds stacked against them, Jack and Rose seem to live a fairly fruitful and productive existence in their commune (absence of television will do that). However, they are both products of their isolated existence. Jack is unwilling to cope with the housing community going up down the road and Rose, well, she's more than a bit stunted in both her growth and social skills.
The major obstacle in Jack and Rose's idyllic Eden-esque existence comes when Jack invites his girlfriend, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and her sons, Thaddius (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald), to come live with them. Jack, of course, has the best of intentions, hoping the surrogate family will prove worthy successors after he passes on.
Rose finds her only solace and comfort in the possibly gay, portly Rodney. McDonald plays the role excellently, proving his acting ability as he matches the likes of Keener and Day-Lewis. He manages to convey the perfect blend of humor and melancholy through the role.
Meanwhile, Thaddius is a problem child with his eyes and hormones focused directly on the innocent Rose. This leads to some squeamish and suspenseful moments that add a darker underbelly to the film. To make matters worse, Kathleen is not quite sure what to make of Rose, and decides instead to treat her with the kind of awkward detachment fit for an extraterrestrial. Granted, Rose's reaction to such treatment does add some very funny and unexpected moments to the film.
Between the family drama and Jack's illness, Rose raises the stakes by stating her desire to die along with her father. This keeps the suspense and momentum chugging even as the film sags and falters a bit along the way. The film's eventual conclusion is extremely divisive; it will either be loved or hated. I found it out of place with the rest of the film.
Day-Lewis turns in another impassioned performance as he weeps, smokes and floats through his scenes, perfectly portraying someone losing their battle with an illness. He lost an ungodly amount of weight for the role and it's particularly gut wrenching to see his spine stretching the skin on his back. Keener also does a good job, but seems bent on playing the same roles, equal parts ditsy and worldly. Newcomer Belle is impressive. She excellently captures the innocence required for the role of Rose. Her often nymph-like appearance is as unsettling as it is alluring. But Jason Lee, as gardener Gray, is underused in the film. Elsewhere, Jena Malone as hippie troublemaker Red Berry falters, playing the role too over-the-top.
Miller is not yet her father, but she is certainly cut from the same bark and that seems good enough this time around. Generally, she holds back when necessary and exploits when needed. However, she does show some amateur moments as the film's beginning is particularly dull and wandering, with Bob Dylan's music taking far more precedence than the actual action onscreen.
Jack and Rose aren't Willy and Biff Loman yet.