By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
“I tried to contain myself, but I couldn’t.” So says the title character in “Jolene,” a film about a gal who never learned to draw within the lines.
Jolene, springing from an E.L. Doctorow story by way of director Dan Ireland’s movie version, proves an engaging and unstoppable force, no matter how she might be buffeted about by fate. And buffeted she is.
We first meet 15-year-old Jolene, a red-headed innocent played by Jessica Chastain, on her wedding day. It’s almost certainly a mistake to marry her nerdy husband, especially with his predatory Uncle Phil (Dermot Mulroney) under the same roof.
Thus begins a bumpy journey that leads through juvenile institutions and cross-country hitchhiking trips, none of which deflect Jolene from her interest in being an artist.
A stint as a roller-skating drive-in waitress brings Jolene into the orbit of a songwriter (Rupert Friend), who looks as though he’s seen too many Johnny Depp performances, especially the ones involving facial hair and questionable hygiene.
Somehow it’s inevitable that Jolene should end up in Las Vegas, where a high-roller (Chazz Palminteri) shows her a life of razzle-dazzle.
Another even rockier episode leads our plucky heroine to a wealthy Tulsa man (Michael Vartan). He seems nice enough on the outside, which is probably a warning sign.
Movies with episodic structures have their own built-in ups and downs, and “Jolene” answers these issues by keeping the emphasis on its lead actress. Jessica Chastain, perhaps by virtue of being a fresh new face, comes across as utterly believable and quite sympathetic.
This remains true even as Jolene makes questionable decisions along the way. It’s tricky to make a film in which the main character has a steep learning curve, because we’re in danger of scratching our heads and dismissing her.
Of course, it’s a fine line between foolish and all-too-human, and Ireland (who, many moons ago, was the co-founder of the Seattle International Film Festival) and Chastain make sure that Jolene is nothing but human. That makes the movie click.
“Jolene” operates in an interesting zone between realism and a sort of fairy tale; Jolene herself feels authentic, but isn’t quite a real person either, more a literary character whose adventures create a fable about resilience in the face of steep odds.
An episodic fable, based on an E.L. Doctorow story, about a much-preyed-upon woman (Jessica Chastain) and her plucky resilience in the face of steep odds. Chastain and director Dan Ireland make Jolene’s picaresque journey into something between realism and a fairy tale.
Rated: R, for language, nudity, subject matter.
Showing: Seven Gables.