“Janie Jones,” a likable, unassuming father-daughter drama set in the trenches of the indie-rock world, rides on the impeccably detailed performances of its stars, the brilliant but perennially overlooked Alessandro Nivola (“Junebug,” “Laurel Canyon”) and Abigail Breslin, now 15 and two-thirds grown up from the days of “Little Miss Sunshine.”
This story of a dissipated pop musician whose career is in eclipse has been told and retold, and there are moments when “Janie Jones” threatens to turn into “Crazy Heart,” which is not necessarily a bad thing. Written and directed by David M. Rosenthal, it feels mostly authentic until a contrived ending that leaves a saccharine taste.
Mr. Nivola’s character, the singer-songwriter Ethan Brand, is on tour in the Midwest with his band when a woman named Mary Ann Jones (Elisabeth Shue) invades his dressing room, dragging along her 13-year-old daughter, Janie (Ms. Breslin). Ethan is the girl’s father, the woman insists, though he doesn’t believe her, and he has no recollection of her. Before they have time to hash out the matter, Mary Ann, a drug addict, disappears, leaving Janie behind with a message that she will return for her daughter after she has cleaned up her act.
Rock ’n’ roll road movies are notoriously tricky affairs. An actor without musical skills can’t fake it. But Mr. Nivola, who physically suggests an Ivy League Bruce Springsteen, is a decent enough singer to pull it off. And his songs, written by Eef Barzelay of the alt-country band Clem Snide, comfortably occupy the hazy stylistic territory in which Ethan, who suggests a less gifted Ryan Adams, operates.
Mr. Nivola offers a subtle, merciless portrait of a frustrated semi-star on the skids, whose ego is much larger than his fame. A spoiled, arrogant drunk and outcast from his wealthy family, Ethan lacks the killer charm of Jeff Bridges’s Bad Blake but is not totally loathsome.
His discovery that his tag-along girlfriend and backup singer, Iris (Brittany Snow), has cheated on him with his lead guitarist precipitates an onstage brawl that goes viral on YouTube. Summarily dropped by his record company and abandoned by his other band members, he rashly decides to continue as a solo act.
Ethan’s best chance at redemption (I hate that word) comes at the hands of Janie, a tough, resourceful girl to whom he begins paying serious attention after she displays a precocious musical talent. Nowadays it’s not totally unusual for children in their middle teens to be as musically sophisticated as Janie. If Ms. Breslin is almost too good to be true, her acting is so natural and convincing that you buy her as a possible future star who becomes half of a duet act with her father.
“Janie Jones” effectively captures a grubby club circuit where rowdy audiences test a performer’s mettle. After attacking a patron who makes a lewd remark about Janie, Ethan lands in jail. Janie, who is too young for a license, nervously drives his car into town and pawns his guitar for bail money. The sequence is not played for cuteness; you feel her mixture of anxiety and determination, and you admire her smarts.
Late in the movie “Janie Jones” stalls at a crossroads and can’t decide what direction to take. It settles for an ending that leaves you disappointed that Mr. Rosenthal felt obliged to play it so neat and tidy.
Opens on Friday in New York and Seattle.
Written and directed by David M. Rosenthal; director of photography, Anastas N. Michos; produced by Keith Kjarval and Eric Bassett; released by Tribeca Film. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Abigail Breslin (Janie Jones), Elisabeth Shue (Mary Ann Jones), Alessandro Nivola (Ethan Brand), Brittany Snow (Iris), Peter Stormare (Sloan) and Frank Whaley (Chuck).