The estranged father-daughter relationship is one of those screenplay contrivances that works better than most. Recent examples include “The Wrestler” and Alexander Payne’s upcoming “The Descendants,” where the family conflict reeks of familiarity but transcends cliché through strong performances and a careful navigation of sentimentality. “Janie Jones” adds to that bunch with the same routine about a washed up dad coming to terms with fatherhood, taking its derivative story at face value and making it click, if not pop. Although not exemplary, “Janie Jones” at least manages to give its tired scenario a sense of legitimacy.
That may have something to do with its real life inspiration. Writer-director David M. Rosenthal (“Falling Up”) based the basic scenario, about washed up rock musician Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola) coming to terms with the 13-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) he never knew he had, on his own experiences. While Ethan is fiction, he’s a fully believable creation, hailing from that tired species of jaded party animal whose stage antics eventually catch up to him.
The movie begins with the ingredients for a perfect storm: Moments before Ethan is set to take the stage with his band, a drug-addicted former groupie (Elisabeth Shue) whom Ethan barely remembers shows up in time to abruptly leave their daughter in his care. Ethan barely has time to process the claim before the woman vanishes, forcing him to awkwardly bring her along on their tour just before internal drama tears the band apart. Ethan’s subsequent downward spiral puts his daughter in the position of saving him.
Confused and alienated young Janie Jones takes her name from the song on the The Clash’s 1977 debut album and looks like it. Equipped with streets smarts and an acoustic guitar, Janie takes after her father, although he doesn’t realize it right away. At first deferring to his longtime manager (Peter Stormare) to handle the girl while he sorts out his money troubles, Ethan eventually finds himself stuck with Janie and figuring her into his world. When Janie suddenly takes the stage during one of Ethan’s solo gigs, the bonding begins, and the movie goes into autopilot mode.
None of these developments are especially strained because Nivola and Breslin never overplay their characters, and Rosenthal’s basic screenplay compliments their chemistry by avoiding the strained moments of argumentation that usually take the place of subtler behavior. (Now 15, Breslin shows signs of clear maturity since her “Little Miss Sunshine” days.) That’s not to say that “Janie Jones” manages to rise above anything more than a series of garden variety developments, inevitably arriving at a climactic situation in which Ethan’s bad behavior puts him in dire straights, forcing Janie to bail him out. We’ve been here before, but it’s not a terrible destination.
The problem with formula is not its predictability but that many filmmakers use it as an excuse note for lazy storytelling. Rosenthal falls prey to this trapping only because “Janie Jones” brings no new ideas to the table. (For a more inspired twist on a similar scenario, see Sean Baker’s “Prince of Broadway.”) But if there are rules for making this sort of routine scenario work, Rosenthal has studied them well, issuing the restraint of a filmmaker aware that many wrong steps could be taken. He’s even apologetic about it: During one spat between Ethan and his soon-to-be-ex-bandmates, Janie asks his manager, “What was that?” and the man shrugs. “Just bad drama.” Sub “usual” for “bad” and the assessment would fit better; it’s the rare case of a movie being too hard on itself.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having made the festival rounds last year, “Janie Jones” is being distributed by Tribeca Film and opens in Seattle and New York this Friday, followed by a Los Angeles run next week. Solid reviews should help bring it respectable, if overall fairly modest, returns.