The Ballad of Jack and Rose

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Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Camilla Belle, Catherine Keener, and Ryan McDonald. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, April 22, at the Cinemark Tinseltown.

Underneath a surface stitched together from blatant absurdities, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is bursting with great performances and even better intentions. Whether or not that formula works is up to the individual viewer-or as one character puts it, in the kind of epiphany that people here are fond of, "It all boils down to taste".

Writer-director Rebecca Miller-daughter of late playwright Arthur Miller and married to star Daniel Day-Lewis-had a different equation going in her previous feature, Personal Velocity, which offered a few stellar moments of satirical insight and a whole lot of arch phoniness. Here, the impulses feel real and the actors give memorable life to creations that might have been hard to accept in lesser hands.

Day-Lewis shines as the titular Jack Slavin, a Scottish engineer who dropped out in the '60s and now-in 1986-is wallowing in the detritus of a failed commune on a windswept island off the East Coast of the U.S. (The movie was shot in P.E.I., and perhaps they should have covered up that Canadian Tire sign near the end.)

Jack has lived with motherless daughter Rose (the impressive Camilla Belle) for most of her 16 years, and their relationship is getting a little too close for comfort as she soars into puberty. His problem is accelerated by a heart condition-something not helped by his constant puffing of roll-your-owns, not to mention his opposition to those ticky-tacky houses being plunked down on the other side of the island.

Not knowing what to do about his daughter's welfare, he decides to import his sometimes-girlfriend, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), from the mainland, despite the fact that he's never even mentioned her to Rose and hasn't met her teenage sons. So it's bound to work out really well, right?

Miller handles the trickiest stuff here with wit and grace. The arrival of Kathleen ("She's so regular," Rose proclaims) and her mismatched sons is a marvel of compassionately drawn discomfort. There's immediate tension with Thaddius (Paul Dano), a gangly, taciturn horndog, and his heavyset bookworm half-brother, Rodney (Vancouverite Ryan McDonald), but Jack is too preoccupied to grasp the implications.

Miller, on the other hand, grasps them, spins them around, and then shoves yellow-painted traffic signs on them in case someone might miss something. I'm not sure it was really necessary to have Rose's childhood tree house turned upside down by a sudden storm, to have actual poisonous snakes loose under her bed during her first bout of lovemaking, nor to have a parable Jack tells about an ox and a little girl literalized on screen. And don't get me going about the slo-mo effects, when it's already obvious what people are thinking and feeling.

The movie's not dumb, though, and its underlying commentary about where American materialism went wrong is worth pondering. In the end, it's a movie that requires the audience to provide the collective editing that the director couldn't quite bring herself to do.