There’s not much to Jackie & Ryan, which is what almost makes it something special. Ami Canaan Mann’s third feature (after Morning and Texs Killing Fields) depicts the romance that blossoms, over the course of a few snowy days in Ogden, Utah, between a former country-music star and a rail-riding, folk-singing busker. Their passion isn’t exactly for the ages—it’s less a case of destiny fulfilled, Nicholas Sparks style, than it is of two needy people who happen to find each other at the right time. But that’s entirely to the film’s credit. Had Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, been confident enough to stick to that idea, she might really have had something.
Jackie (Katherine Heigl) has recently returned to Ogden, where she grew up, after achieving at least a moderate amount of success in New York—enough that she’s bombarded by questions about what it’s like to ride in a limo when she applies for a teaching position at a local grade school. Having fled a bad marriage (and apparently a career downturn, though that’s never really addressed), she’s increasingly worried that her wealthy asshole of a husband will manage to buy sole custody of their young daughter, Lia (Emily Alyn Lind). When a car backing out of a parking space knocks her down, she’s aided by Ryan (Ben Barnes), who hopped a freight train into town to touch base with an old friend before heading up to Portland to play at a folk festival. Jackie asks Ryan to stay for dinner, and he soon volunteers to fix the rotting shingles on the roof of her house, postponing moving on for a bit. They each need a champion, which they find in each other, with Ryan urging Jackie to fight for her own happiness, and Jackie encouraging Ryan to write his own songs rather than just playing old-timey standards.
Nothing about this modest regional indie, with its emphasis on heartland sincerity (Jackie tells Lia, who grew up in Manhattan, that while she couldn't wait to get out of Ogden as a kid, it’s “a good place to be from”) and its nostalgia for a bygone, analog era, suggests that the director’s father is Michael Mann. (Anthony Mann, maybe.) Jackie & Ryan has a certain rustic beauty, but it’s formally undistinguished, for the most part, and Mann seems doggedly unconcerned with generating sparks between her lovers. Both Heigl and Barnes (who’s British, but does a convincing, understated drawl) perform their own music, and their characters seem more alive when singing and playing guitar than they do in each other’s arms. After a while, it becomes clear that this is intentional, that Jackie and Ryan aren’t meant to be soulmates. Mann even has Jackie spell out the film’s thesis for Lia: “Sometimes people just come through [town] to tell you something. Then, once you’ve heard it, they go.” The exposition is unnecessary, but it’s refreshing to see a romance—even a slightly tepid one—that acknowledges and even embraces its transient nature.
Unfortunately, Mann chickens out at the last possible moment. After a lovely, lengthy epilogue that appears committed to a less-conventional ending, she hastily retreats (literally in the last 60 seconds) to the resolution dictated by formula, negating everything that made Jackie & Ryan notable. If this were a studio movie, the ending could be dismissed as studio-imposed. Instead, it appears to be just a failure of nerve, and an immensely disappointing one.