Rating: 3.25/5The recent feature films of Bradley Rust Gray, 2009′s The Exploding Girl and now Jack and Diane, are about love, plain and simple without any distractions. Each charts the emergence of a shared, mutual love as it gradually surfaces at only the most hesitant pace. Gray seems to have set for himself the challenge of making visible the intuitive, silent transmission that occurs between lovers, forming miraculously from nothing, and to do so, he externalizes these emotions in intense, physical outpourings. The “exploding girl” of Gray’s earlier film is a young woman suffering from stress-induced seizures, one of which occurs following an intimate conversation between her and a good male friend for whom she has feelings. It is consistent with Gray’s aesthetic that neither character openly calls attention to their shared feelings, the better to let them swell and bubble up underneath the surface, and we might be tempted to call their quiet, barely visible eruptions “explosions”: the last scene of The Exploding Girl finds the errant, would-be lovers finally acknowledging their mutual affection through the smallest of gestures, hand-holding.
Jack and Diane takes greater liberties stylistically and narratively—the film’s credits include “Creature Design,” as well as animation by the Quay Brothers—but mines similar territory. The Exploding Girl’s male-female couple is replaced by two young women, the Jack (Riley Keough) and Diane (Juno Temple) of the title. Gray largely eschews the conventions of mainstream romantic films that would fabricate the perfect synchronization of events to bring two lovers together. Instead, Jack and Diane find themselves by chance, and affection develops between them spontaneously and mysteriously like an unearthly form of magic. At the same time, however, the intimacy generated in Gray’s films is low-key, almost modest except for the hints that strong, overwhelming forces draw these lovers together almost hypnotically. The transition, mere hours from when they first meet, from Jack and Diane tentatively exchanging words to making out in the back of a club is abrupt but purposefully so: by concealing the internal emotional shifts rapidly occurring between the two, our attention is drawn to the depth of feeling we can never fully uncover. Jack and Diane’s mutual love becomes a shared secret, and in the context of Gray’s aesthetic, we can respectfully accept their implicit wish for privacy.
Already by the second day of knowing each other, Jack and Diane have fallen hard for each other. Jack, played as a tomboy by the rather unrecognizable Keough, takes the lead in their relationship, playing for Diane a tape containing only the Flying Pickets’ cover of Yaz’s “Only You.” The tape becomes the film’s sweetest, most tender embodiment of love: passed down from Diane’s brother, who committed suicide after a woman broke up with him and returned it to him, it hints at the lushly romantic tone that sits comfortably alongside Gray’s mumblecore realism. The notion of a tape playing only one song in an endless loop suggests the undying, eternal devotion that characterizes Gray’s depiction of love, and its mortal backstory reframes love as an unavoidably life-or-death matter. Gray’s film doesn’t always work as a whole, but the attempt to marry melodramatic romanticism with 21st century deadpan realism is a thrilling one, and there’s little doubt that Gray has set a clear course from The Exploding Girl through Jack and Diane, tantalizing us with what might come next.
For those less patient, though, Jack and Diane in particular might seem more of an experiment than anything else. From the beginning, Gray weaves in elements of the fantastic, with Diane transforming into a werewolf-like creature who, in one scene, pounces on Jack and devours her insides. This aspect of the film isn’t wholly integrated, and too often, it feels tangential, but the image of Diane, transformed back into her human self, crouched over Jack, sticking her hands inside her, pulling out an organ and calmly biting off pieces of it is oddly affecting. This is later explicitly acknowledged as a dream, but in its flirtations with the transgressive, Jack and Diane usefully incorporates within itself the ideas of writers like Georges Bataille in a manner far more accessible than, say Christophe Honoré’s Bataille adaptation Ma mère. Some might deride this as “transgression lite,” but it’s a welcome stylistic choice in the context of Gray’s commitment to realism, through which transgression becomes familiar and tender. Jack and Diane freely discuss bodily functions, and in one scene, when Jack feeds Diane a piece of sushi covered with ketchup, the sight of Diane spitting out the half-chewed food into Jack’s hand is oddly moving, illustrating how willingly these two have shed the boundaries between them within a shockingly brief period of time. In that way, Diane’s organ-eating dream sequence, oddly enough, is sweet and entrancing where Honoré’s film is deliberately provocative and off-putting.
The pattern established in these films is simple: an expansive gulf between two budding lovers is highlighted, and the rest of the film works to bring these two together in a perfect union. The ending of The Exploding Girl is archetypal in its purposeful mismatch between the film’s registering of this love on its surface (that small act of holding hands) and the torrent of emotions underneath. Jack and Diane’s path is less straightforward. The two must part ways as Diane travels to study in Paris, but this distance makes literal the gap that necessarily separates any two individuals. And minimizing this gap is the engine, driven by friction, that generates the emotional energy of Gray’s films: one day while away in Paris, Diane receives a package containing Jack’s cassette player and her brother’s tape, now fixed after having been broken earlier (an obvious but welcome symbolic gesture). Somehow, playing that tape collapses the hundreds of miles between them and brings Jack and Diane closer than if they were right there next to each other. It’s a magical moment in a film that, while uneven, winningly wears its heart on its sleeve