Mom’s a meth head and Dad’s a struggling musician who doesn’t know his 13-year-old daughter exists. So right at the start of Janie Jones, the title character (Abigail Breslin) is screwed. Things get worse when Janie’s mother (Elisabeth Shue), a former groupie, decides to pay a visit to her sperm donor, Ethan (Alessandro Nivola), to introduce him to his kid. He doesn’t remember her. So she flees instead of telling him to fuck off, ditching the girl at her father’s show. She’s gotta get clean and can’t take care of Janie while she does it.
Janie is smart enough to call the cops, but the law strongly advises the denying dad that he best take Janie on tour with him or face unpleasant consequences should a test prove his paternity. Janie, though hesitant, chooses life on the road over a path to a foster home. Cue the odd-couple shenanigans!
You don’t need a crystal ball to guess where Janie Jones is headed, and writer-director David M. Rosenthal doesn’t leave any cliché unfulfilled. Ethan, according to several people, is an asshole, a self-described “drunken lout” who gets into physical fights with his band and is into self-destruction in general. He does, however, vacillate between not giving a shit about how Janie sees him and protecting her, with the latter inclination not exactly ringing true. Meanwhile, Janie is forced to grow up and cope—which she does by strumming a guitar and singing to herself. Of course, various people, including Ethan, catch her off-guard while she’s doing this. Gee, the kid’s got talent! Gosh, maybe she really is his daughter! And so on.
The story largely revolves around Ethan’s crumbling tour and the inevitable bonding between father and offspring. The motions get repetitive: How many times is Ethan going to clash with his band or attack his audience? How often do we have to hear that Janie is good? By the time she hushes a rowdy bar crowd by crying, “Leave my dad alone!” and offers up a song of her own, it’s just ludicrous.
Worse than all of that is the music itself. You better like singer-songwriters a whole lot, because not only is Ethan and Janie’s music strummy, sensitive stuff, but the backing soundtrack (courtesy Gemma Hayes and Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay) is full of gratingly mediocre folky ballads, too. You’ll get in touch with your softer side and want to punch it.
Breslin gives a relatively monochromatic performance, though it’d be difficult to inject much nuance into a character who’s devastated about her abandonment until she’s not—which is about an hour after it happens. Nivola, who has a Sam Rockwell quality, has a see-saw of a role, meanwhile, one that asks him to play the asshole one minute and a caring father the next, then back again. Even if the two never quite mesh as parent and child—which, to give the script credit, is probably intentional—they do eventually convey a natural-feeling comfort with and curiosity about one another that’s the film’s one saving grace. But by the time they settle into the groove you’ve already guessed at, you’ll be too bored to care.