Jack and Rose live an intensely insular life on an island off the East Coast. Their days consist of gardening, talking and lying on their backs in the soft, green grass, holding each other and trying to figure out what shapes the clouds resemble.
As romantic and intimate as this may sound, the fresh-faced Rose is actually Jack's daughter, and she's 16. Having lived in an abandoned commune with her idealistic father, who has sheltered her almost completely from an outside world that he perceives as deteriorating beyond repair in the year 1986, she has an innocence that makes her seem even younger.
Rebecca Miller's "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" follows Rose (Camilla Belle) as she grows into a young woman and Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he shrinks into a dying man, and she chronicles their unusually close relationship as it shifts under the strain of introducing new people to their lives.
Jack, a Scotsman dying of heart disease, shows up one day at the home of his quasi-girlfriend for the past four months, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and asks her to move in and help take care of him.
And so Kathleen arrives with her two boys from two different fathers: the dangerous Thadius (Paul Dano), long-haired and wiry like a refugee from a Def Leppard concert, and the heavyset Rodney (Ryan McDonald), who's sensitive and articulate and provides a bemused source of comic relief, something this melancholy "Ballad" desperately needs.
Never having heard of Kathleen, much less her sons or the "experiment" to have them move in (as Jack calls it), Rose naturally feels deceived and betrayed. She lashes out in increasingly volatile ways: by allowing Rodney, an aspiring hairdresser, to shear her long, brown locks; by trying to seduce both Thadius and Rodney with varying results; by pointing a shotgun at Jack and Kathleen in bed.
But as the mayhem mounts en route to the film's climax, the early realism of "Jack and Rose" sadly falls away. At one point, Jack drives a bulldozer into the model home at a generic suburban complex that's under construction, which seems like implausible behavior for a noble man we're supposed to respect.
Despite the film's flaws, though, you may find that "Jack and Rose" have gotten under your skin and lodged themselves there with an unexpected, uneasy grace.
"The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is rated R for language, sexual content and some drug material. Running time: 112 minutes.