VENICE, Italy — "Jackie and Ryan" takes viewers into an America of tough times, train-hopping and old-time fiddle music.
That sounds like the Great Depression, but it's set in the present day.
The film from writer-director Ami Canaan Mann is a homespun romance starring Katherine Heigl and Ben Barnes as two uprooted musicians blown together by circumstance. It's also one of several Venice Film Festival entries that map a United States scarred by the wake of the Great Recession.
"It's easy to not look at it as a crisis because — as opposed to the 1930s — visually, nobody really seems to be suffering," Mann said during an interview in Venice, where "Jackie and Ryan" is screening in the festival's Horizons section for new discoveries.
"There are houses that are under foreclosure, but the foreclosure signs are not on the front lawn. Everybody's buying stuff from Wal-Mart, so everybody kind of looks OK."
"Nobody really looks like a Dorothea Lange photograph, and yet there's infrastructural damage that's occurring."
Hard times are ever-present onscreen at Venice this year. Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes," starring Andrew Garfield of The Amazing Spider-Man, is set among Florida families evicted from their homes following the subprime mortgage crisis. In David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn," Al Pacino plays a locksmith in a workaday Texas town estranged from his financial high-flyer son.
In Mann's film, drifter Ryan lives to make music, hopping trains around the country and performing early 20th-century blues-folk on the street with a fiddle-playing friend.
He rolls in to picturesque Ogden, Utah, and meets Heigl's Jackie, who has abandoned a major-label record deal, a New York condo and a grasping husband and returned to her small-town roots.
They are united by a love of music — especially rough-hewn blues and bluegrass played on fiddles, guitars and banjos.
Mann said it was hearing buskers in Austin, Texas play that type of "quintessentially American" music that gave her the idea for the film.
"I was watching this band and the whole story just kind of came to me," she said. "I introduced myself to the banjo player, and said 'I need your contact because I'm going to make a story about you.'"
And that's what happened. Nick Hans, the banjo player, ended up advising Mann and composing music for the movie.
Banjo-twanging American roots music is having something of a resurgence, thanks to bands like Mumford & Sons and urban hipsters' rediscovery of heartland Americana.
Mann thinks its appeal, in an era of disposable culture, may have something to do with the craftsmanship and authenticity that roots music represents.
"It needs to be played with a lot of heart and not necessarily polish, and maybe people are responding to that," she said. "I certainly do."
Barnes and Heigl, who have a winning, slow-burning chemistry, embraced the movie's musical side. Both do their own singing, and Barnes — Prince Caspian in the "Chronicles of Narnia" movies — taught himself to play guitar to pull off the role of the virtuosic Ryan.
Mann went even farther in her research, hopping trains with Hans to get a sense of Ryan's free-roaming lifestyle.
"I loved it," she said. "It was really lovely to be able to see the backs of towns and what it's like along the river — parts of the country that are these days a little unseen. Hidden America.
"And it was incredibly freeing to have everything you needed in a backpack, and to remind yourself that you can do that — you don't actually need the house and the car and the microwave."
Mann, whose crime drama "Texas Killing Fields" played in Venice in 2011, is the daughter of "Heat" director Michael Mann. She says the biggest advantage of growing up around filmmaking was learning how much craft and graft is involved in creating cinema magic.
"It is almost like an old craft skill — people hand down information to other people" she said. "And I've been very lucky to be able to work with Michael, but also with Robert Redford and Jon Avnet, and have them share with me what they've learned and what they know.
"Film is a craft, and all I want is to get better at it."
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