Director Dan Ireland has an eye for blossoming talent. He cast rising star Renee Zellweger in The Whole Wide World and Rupert Friend in Mrs. Palfrey at the Clarmont. Jolene, an off-the-radar 2008 feature that received a belated release in 2010, presents the feature debut of Jessica Chastain, who has since gone on to starring roles in films by Al Pacino (Wilde Salome) and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). Unfortunately, while Chastain is superb in the part, Jolene is a rather disjoined character study without a sense of purpose.
Adapted (and, I assume, greatly expanded) from the short story “Jolene: A Life” by E.L. Doctorow, Jolene is a modern Candide, an orphan banged around the South Carolina foster system until she becomes a 15-year-old bride to a sweet and stupid child of a young man, at which time she begins a life of getting banged around by a succession of dubious lovers and bad situations. We’re supposed to feel for her ordeals and admire her resilience, and Chastain does a great job of igniting Jolene’s mix of street-wise survivalism and romantic soul. Her performance anchors a film that has no solid grounding and her voice-over is spoken with a candid bluntness, the toughened, unsentimental honesty of hindsight with just a wistful trace of regret.
But while you can sympathize with a vulnerable, emotionally-starved 16-year-old who falls for the sexual confidence and the romantic words of her childish husband’s skeezy uncle (Dermot Mulroney), it’s hard to keep that level of sympathy as her bad judgment fails to improve with time or experience.