16 year old Josie (Olivia DeJonge) and her older brother Jack (Alex Neustaedter) lost their mother when they were young, and have since been raised, entirely isolated and homeschooled, by their abusive, alcoholic father (William Fichtner). One day Jack runs away, but a few weeks later he returns for his sister.
Josie and Jack bears all the hallmarks of a debut. Kelly Braffet and Sarah Lancaster’s screenplay, taken from Braffet’s novel, is a blunt instrument. One of the biggest issues is that we don’t see much evolution in any of the characters, and what we do get is screenwriting 101. Josie and Jack’s father is a drunk, over and over again we see him completely soused, berating his kids and telling them how useless they are. William Fichtner isn’t bad, making the slightly less obvious choice to generally play these scenes quietly, but they all blend into each other. This makes the opening half hour a numbing plod, alternating between these scenes and moments between Josie, Jack and Kevin, a local boy Jack is encouraging his sister to manipulate so they can steal some prescription drugs, which also all end up feeling like the same scene.
When Josie and Jack run away, we settle even more into a rote series of events, the same plot essentially unfolding twice over, at least up to a point. Jack finds a girlfriend; he and Josie mooch off her, they break up. Rinse, repeat. This last hour of the film is where the big theme (spelled out in the cinematic equivalent of large print from the start), comes to the fore; abuse as generational pattern. It’s obvious from early on that Jack, despite hating him, is heavily influenced by his father. We see it in his possessiveness over Josie when she likes Kevin (Owen Campbell). Jack tells his sister “I’m the only person who’s ever loved you”. We see this pattern repeated over and over, but again, the characterisation doesn’t progress; Jack begins this way and he’s essentially the same character throughout, behaving the same way towards every woman he encounters. Josie is perhaps even more one note, essentially pulled along in the wake of first her father and then her brother.
For what they’ve got to work with DeJonge and Neustaedter make the best of the thin material. At least in the early going their muted performances seem motivated, both of them somewhat cowed by their father, and there is some realism in the way that Josie relates to Kevin (especially his reaction to their awkward first kiss). The problem is that neither the screenplay nor Sarah Lancaster’s direction allow them to evolve much, and so while they have effective moments, they come when the writing works for the one note they are being asked to play.
The energy of the film is relentlessly downbeat. Visually it’s dark throughout, shot almost entirely with a grey cast that is almost certainly meant to reflect the misery of Josie and Jack’s lives, but which often serves to confuse the audience, because there is so seldom any visual difference between night and day. There are a couple of flashes of decent visual ideas; the torn wallpaper in the big house Joise and Jack live in with their father gives it an air of being scarred from past trauma, and for a couple of scenes when they move into a home owned by Jack’s rich girlfriend Lily (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), the environment is brighter, as if there is suddenly some hope in the air but, in a decent indication of Lancaster’s overall directorial bluntness, the palette soon turns back to the same featureless grey. The result is that Josie and Jack is painfully boring to watch. The visuals carry through a somnambulant tone that might have been effective if it had only been present in the last third of the film, as we’re told Jack is using more and more of Lily’s drugs, but because it’s how they whole film plays, it doesn’t carry any meaning and it makes the whole experience of watching it drag.
There is probably a better film buried somewhere in Josie and Jack. The idea of these two kids, unable to escape the grip of their father’s influence over who they have become, has genuinely tragic dimensions and the actors here don’t lack the ability to carry that off. The problem is that they are poorly served by everything around them. Perhaps with a more experienced hand behind the scenes there is something to be salvaged, but this is a tedious march to an ending that lands with none of the impact it should have.