Jazz movie based on memoir struggles to hold high note

LOW-DOWN-4
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Amy-Jo is standing at the window, her preternatural smile emanating warmth as she looks down at her father crossing the busy street. It is Valentine’s Day. They have plans to meet, and this time, he is going to deliver. But just as her father reaches the littered sidewalk in front of their dingy apartment, two men rush him from behind, pat him down and whisk him into the backseat of their car. Though her smile quickly fades, she does not look surprised.

Such is the opening of the film “Low Down,” and such is the gist of its cyclical plot — excitement, disappointment, repeat — as told from the perspective of Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning, “Maleficent”), daughter of celebrated jazz musician Joe Albany (John Hawkes, “Lincoln”). The narrative takes place between 1974 and 1976, following the young girl as she struggles to find a place for herself in her father’s heroin-centered life.

Her struggle usually ends in vain. Amy-Jo is regularly left in the care of her grandmother (Glenn Close, “Damages”), who, despite kindness, is unable to offer the paternal affection she so desperately craves.

Multiple attempts at rehabilitation and a keen sense of self-awareness prove to be no match for Joe’s talent-squandering addiction, but poor Amy-Jo never gives up hope. She idolizes her musician father, allowing every relapse and broken promise to sting as though it were his first.

This tragic narrative has enough strength to pull heavily on heartstrings, but the film ultimately loses its grip about halfway through. It may feel like the first rush of bitter disappointment for Fanning’s character, but we know it isn’t. It happened five minutes prior — and five minutes before that, as well. While phenomenal performances (including brief cameos by Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones” fame) abound in this coming-of-age jazz drama, the film hits a sustained flat note after delivering a promising introduction.

“Low Down,” which marks the directorial debut for Jeff Preiss, is an adapted screenplay based on the real Amy-Jo’s memoir of the same title. Her book has received strong praise, but its big-screen counterpart ultimately lacks the introspection her text so eloquently maintains. The screenplay has little substantive dialogue, depending on furtive glances to intimate character motivation. This method does not always work, leaving the film’s attempts at subtlety feeling obvious and contrived; there is a limit to the emotion Fanning can convey with tear-soaked eyes and a trembling lower lip. Sure, it is easy to feel sorry for her, but this sympathy does not have the inertia necessary to push the film to its conclusion.

The actress plays a broken, forgotten daughter well — as she should, considering she has done it before in Sophia Coppola’s “Somewhere” — but there is only so much she can do with Amy-Jo’s passive character. The film is reduced to a string of melancholic montages soaked in a ‘70s-style sepia tone: her father leaving her in their derelict apartment, her father coming back, her father making empty promises, etc. We observe Amy-Jo through all of it but without really feeling a connection.

If “Low Down” strikes a chord with audiences, it is with the help of its talented cast. Close, who has previously been nominated for six Academy Awards, gives a brilliantly refreshing performance as a doting grandmother. The Hollywood veteran is able to step out of the domineering and manipulative stereotype that has been blighting her resume for decades, while Headey and Fanning skillfully reprise variants of their former gigs. Not to be outdone, Hawkes channels Joe Albany in a profoundly affecting way. Though Fanning’s glares and grimaces may not yet be able to carry such a heavy film, Hawkes’ piercingly desperate eyes radiate sadness, guilt and regret within each frame. Telling a story from his character’s point of view would have made a much better film.

Ultimately, “Low Down” tries hard but loses its rhythm halfway through. Interestingly, a film about disappointment ends up creating some of its own.

“Low Down” opens Friday at Shattuck Cinemas.

Contact Gillian Edevane at [email protected].