'Jackie & Ryan': Venice Review

Jackie Ryan
Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Director Ami Canaan Mann hits her stride in a homey but surprisingly enjoyable ride through honest old mid-America

Katherine Heigl and Ben Barnes play musicians who meet by chance in small-town America

After bringing her police procedural Texas Killing Fields to Venice competition three years ago, writer-director Ami Canaan Mann returns in the Horizons section with a small, beautifully modulated work about recession-strapped America and the power of a fortuitous meeting to alter the course of two musicians’ lives for the better. The sunny, soap-and-water characters and thoroughly upbeat message may not be the stuff great films are made of, but in Jackie & Ryan the modesty of the story, the simple story-telling and honest emotions all come together in a satisfying whole. As a bonus, rollicking period music brings a smile every time somebody pulls out a banjo. The two attractive headliners should help locate audiences:  Katherine Heigl of Knocked Up and Grey’s Anatomy and Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia, though his frustrated musician role in Killing Bono is perhaps more relevant). The quality is there for additional festival exposure, even if one feels the whistle of the small screen blowing at the end of the line.

Ryan (Barnes) is a traveling musician, a happy-go-lucky drifter who romantically train-hops around the country like it was the Depression instead of the recession. His carefully crafted music also nods to pre-1930s folk tunes. A lyrical opening sequence communicates his sense of joy and freedom riding the rails through America’s magnificent plains and mountains, all the way to Ogden, Utah. Blink, and you will miss a quick glimpse of the American flag flying proudly as a Bruce Springsteen industrial landscape flashes by the moving train. It's subtle, but it's there.

While busking on the street with a violinist friend, he meets self-possessed single mom Jackie (an ash blonde Heigl).  She too had a musical past as a successful pop singer signed with a record company, but that seems to be another lifetime. Right now, she’s preoccupied with a messy divorce and a battle for child custody. Their brief love story could hardly be simpler, but it works because of the actors' light touch and the extreme low key in which it all plays out. Mann hits her stride using a fast, delicate style that describes ordinary people without tears or self-pity or great drama. A funeral scene only a few minutes long manages to be affecting.

The small-town setting with its schools, supermarkets and fiddling contests is pure, unadorned Americana, where a general shortage of cash afflicts everyone. Duane Manwiller's camerawork doesn’t waste time idealizing the vast, empty, snow-dusted plains of Utah, nor does Mann pretend the locals are any better than the New Yorkers Jackie left behind. Still, as she tells her dubious daughter (Emily Alyn Lind), it wasn't much fun growing up in Ogden, but it’s a nice place to be from.

Street musician Nick Hans wrote most of the tuneful songs Barnes and Heigl sing in the film, based on traditional melodies.

Production companies: Hassell Free Productions in association with 120dB Films, Electric Shadow Company, Mainstreet Films, the Crema Family Office, Xantara Film Capital
Cast: Katherine Heigl, Ben Barnes, Emily Alyn Lind, Clea DuVall, Ryan Bingham, Sheryl Lee
Director-Screenwriter: Ami Canaan Mann
Producers: Molly Hassell, Ami Canaan Mann, John Jencks, Jon Avnet
Director of photography: Duane Manwiller
Production designer: Dianne Millett
Costume designer: Mona May
Editors: Mako Kamitsuna, Lauren Connelly
Music: Nick Hans
Sales:  Highland Film Group
No rating, 90 minutes.