Diane (Juno Temple), a young British teen on holiday in New York, finds herself in a pickle after losing her cell phone upon arrival. With no way to call her Aunt Linda (Cara Seymour, "An Education"), she searches frantically for someone nice enough to lend their mobile. The hunt leads her to a tiny clothing store where she first sets her eyes on Jack (Riley Keough, "The Runaways"), a cute skateboard-wielding gal who likely sees herself as the bad egg most parents lose sleep over. Mutual attraction emerges and Gray's camera tracks every close touch and admiring gaze, cementing their interest in each other. Once the cell phone debacle is sorted the two sneak into a club, but Diane's nerves get the best of her -- a nosebleed sends her to bathroom where her severe anxiousness turns the blonde into a ferocious werewolf. She quickly regains composure and returns to the dancefloor as a human; almost immediately Jack escorts her to a quieter section of the bar and they proceed to lock lips.
When Diane finally ends up at her Aunt's apartment she is promptly grounded for staying out so gosh-darned late. On the flipside, Jack skates through the streets, blissfully listening to a sugary song on a vintage walkman. Suddenly she smacks into a taxi cab, surviving, but with a pretty nasty gash on her face. The tape player she held also lives to tell the tale, but the cassette inside (which holds considerable sentimental value -- it originally belonged to her deceased brother) seems beyond repair. Undeterred, the couple meet at Jack's apartment and attempt to play the broken tape while the punker explains the significance of it, of how she vowed to only share it with someone very special. The relationship continues from here with its fair share of obstacles and ups and downs (Aunt Linda continues to be a stick in the mud; Jack flips upon discovering that Diane is only in town for a week) and each protagonist transforms into a snarling werewolf when dealing with their deepest fears and misery.
Gray's narrative is flawed for numerous reasons, but the prime issue would have to be the presto-bond that surfaces between the leads. Given their young age and seemingly lonely worlds we can grant them some leeway, but the director's impatience for them to get together makes the relationship feel completely empty. He relies too heavily on their unspoken connection by placing them in similar situations or showcasing their identical behaviors/mannerisms -- and while that is clever, it doesn't do anything to make their love for each other feel organic enough to buy. Initially tied together out of isolation and lust, the filmmaker would like us to believe they're intimately close but we're never convinced of that. Even on the first date, Jack and Diane don't seem to have anything to say -- shouldn't they be getting to know one another at least a little bit? This is a very necessary foundation that's not given a single brick and nearly every scene suffers due to its absence. Why would Jack reveal such a personal thing to Diane (re: the cassette tape) if it doesn't even seem like they know each other's last names? Portraying them as anything other than friendly strangers feels like a lie.
So eager is the filmmaker to keep the women together that every hurdle is quickly dismissed, destroying any semblance of stakes and rendering any obstacle in the script absolutely pointless. Aunt Linda's existence is defined by being a pushover: every time she puts her foot down the pair walk all over her. When she reveals to Jack that Diane's stay is limited, the former becomes cold and disengaged -- until she stumbles upon a trashy Internet video involving Diane's sister, which compels her to break the silence and provide a shoulder to cry on. This is a pretty strong element -- the video itself is appropriately disturbing without being too extreme -- but it's taken care of too quickly before its weight can even be felt.
Temple and Keough's performances contain some charm, but Gray can never seem to ignite that spark that the story calls for. Cute moments are created out of each's peculiar choice of snack (Jack enjoys sushi with ketchup, Diane gags), but missing is the energy or warmth that should exist between people so crazy about one another. Things instead feel incredibly flat and detached, leading one to wonder why either is bothering with the other -- their relationship severely lacks any sense of heart. And while the characters are certainly naive, their overly stupid confessions to one another ("I want to unzip my body and put you inside." "Can I sleep in there?") sound less like people drunk with love than second graders with puppydog crushes.
For variety there's some humor to be found within the film, particularly in Keough's deadpan wisecracks which lend some life to otherwise withdrawn scenes. But other comedic constructs feel terribly out of place; more at home in this year's "American Reunion" than in the indie drama Gray is making. After her Aunt suspends phone communication with Jack, Diane convinces her twin sister to call her beau and pretend to be her -- a nonsensical decision born out of guilt, we suppose -- which leads to the sibling stumbling through the conversation and Jack directing the dialogue towards phone sex. The relative is unmasked before the sitcom gooferies really take off, but its speedy conclusion doesn't make any less jarring. A similar example occurs when Temple struggles to cut her pubic hair, a shaving cream endeavor that leaves her calling for assistance. It's not that the movie should be bereft of comedy, but the attempts shouldn't feel so alien.
Thankfully the tinges of horror involving the wolf are well done, with the legendary Quay Brothers lending their stop-motion skill to the mutations from human to beast. Gray incorporates these well and they're appropriately frightening, displaying a knack for suspense we didn't know he had. A later scene finds the girls stuck in a basement and the filmmaker keeps the entire frame black, lit only for a fraction of a second when Diane uses the minimal light from her camera's flash to search for a way out. Meanwhile, Jack's immense fear of the dark results in her becoming the monster -- a predictable transpiration, but so nerve wracking it works -- and Gray builds up to its appearance masterfully.
The power of this scene carries over to the few remaining scenes, and as the couple ultimately go their separate ways, "Jack And Diane" manages to close on a high note. Unfortunately, the film's cracks cannot be paved over so easily and it's still an utterly unfulfilling experience. Now worlds apart, the characters miss each other dearly... but upon further reflection, we still have no idea why. For us to care about the relationship between two characters, it has to make some sort of sense and have a genuine infrastructure, but the movie never bothers to build one. We dig the aesthetic Gray employs, but the substance just isn't there, and "Jack And Diane" is regrettably a major disappointment. [D+]