Equating teens with animals has long been a handy horror-cinema way to tackle pubescent sexual development. So with its most attention-grabbing element relegated to been-there, done-that status, the werewolf-themed Jack and Diane—whose supernatural intimations are treated in purely metaphoric, not literal, fashion—has little new to offer other than a coming-of-age lesbian romance of a distinctly precious, nostalgia-filtered sort.
As in The Exploding Girl, writer/director Bradley Rust Gray focuses on young people whose social disconnection manifests itself in awkward face-to-face and cellular communication, with Diane (Juno Temple) and Jack (Riley Keough, a/k/a Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) given to halting, ineloquent speech dominated by delayed responses and just-functional statements. Young lovers contending with a blossoming relationship for which they’re thoroughly unprepared, neither seems to have a single thing on her mind. The sparks are born not from intellectual compatibility but something more instinctive, igniting almost as soon as Diane, bloody-nosed and in a Raggedy Ann dress, appears in a store where butch brunette Jack works. A touch of thighs and a glancing brush of a breast are all it takes to send the two to a nightclub where they sit in silence until consummating their attraction with a kiss—a moment of ecstasy, but also of danger, as suggested by visual interludes that hint at an underlying, unstable animalism: hair slithering over and coiling around, muscle and flesh.
Such imagery, first introduced during a prelude in which Diane appears to confront a beast in the mirror of a white-tiled bathroom, is crafted with unsettling sliminess by the Quay Brothers. Alas, these sequences press a metaphor that isn’t necessary for Gray’s overarching portrait of young love as tumultuous and deadly. Worse, they quickly become a tiresome distraction. Jack and Diane casts its werewolf material as symbolic representations of Diane’s feelings for Jack (and, later, vice versa), a nasty mess of fear, anger, confusion, and hunger. Yet there’s no heft to these supernatural suggestions, just a sense of stale horror tropes being trotted out to embellish otherwise routine indie material.
When Jack confesses to Diane “I want to unzip my body and put you in there”—”Like a sleeping bag?” Diane asks—and Diane later imagines herself devouring Jack’s heart, the film makes explicit what it need not: that the initial sparks of amour can elicit emotions of great, consuming covetousness.
Strip away the hairy special effects, and Jack and Diane might have no identity at all to call its own. As twinkling music and sensitive female-crooned ballads cascade over the soundtrack, Temple and Keough shamble and shrug like disheveled-hipster-teen cardboard cutouts, their every hesitant line reading and slumped-shoulder gesticulation coming off as part of a too-cool-for-life pose. When they stand at a kitchen counter, Keough in a Ministry T-shirt and Temple in a skanky-pixie yellow belly shirt, the contrast is so stark that it comes off as contrived. Although the leads have delinquent attitude to spare—most of it manifested during run-ins with Diane’s aunt (Cara Seymour), who’s ignored by Diane and taunted with come-ons by Jack—neither is able to emote anything genuine with or without dialogue.
Jack’s love of her dead brother’s cassette tape of the Flying Pickets’ “Only You,” which she listens to on an old-school yellow Sony Sports Walkman, is indicative of Jack and Diane‘s preciousness, which is inextricably bound up in nostalgia for ’70s-era New York City. Gray crafts his turbulently in-love protagonists with swagger and cockiness that makes them recall, visually more than narratively, a less destructive Sid and Nancy. And the director sets his action in a pre-Giuliani-esque Manhattan of grungy streets, cramped apartments, and depressing bus stops. As with so much of Diane and Jack’s flat rapport, however, the story’s wistfulness is undone by affectation.
Both girls spontaneously develop bloody noses whenever their hearts or libidos are stimulated, and Diane, in an attempt to please Jack while rejecting the more frightening wolflike aspects of her feelings, tries to shave her pubic region. Even at these more vulnerable moments, Jack and Diane prove mere approximations of actual people, defined by ticks, attitude, and stylistic choices rather than impulses and desires that seem to stem from lucid origins. Although enthralled by brooding, self-absorbed teenagers, the film doesn’t present a single believable one, floundering at authenticity and, Quay Brothers artistry notwithstanding, beguiling dreaminess.