The concept of 'theme' in movies is one that's often hard to put a finger on. It's generally a central idea behind a story or something that's touched upon throughout a film, but it crucially has the ability to ground a narrative in something meaningful to the audience, or to bind everything together. In the case of Shawn Melling's indie-picture Jean (2018) though, many ideas are presented to us in dribs and drabs by the script where characters discuss various meaningful topics on a whim, but what it's really about at its core can be construed far more slowly.
The story follows a young girl Jean (Isabella Blake-Thomas) living in a desolate place caring for her aging grandparents - the grandmother of whom appears to be chair-bound, and the other who most definitely isn't as he frequently wanders off into the wilderness in search of his old "pack," of friends only for Jean to come searching for him. Aside from the central manhunts there are attempts at character development where Jean ponders on her difficult life and meets a young boy who might just become her friend, but all in all it is a very simple narrative indeed that appears to push theme to the foreground above all else.
However, the most striking thing is that because the ideas are presented so randomly in scenes where characters narrate the occasional profound statement seemingly without all that much relation to the narrative, it all comes across rather like an odd set of jumbled thematic jigsaw pieces that need slotting together. Ultimately when you do it could be interpreted mostly as a film that's about belonging, but the way that's presented doesn't necessarily take you on a journey to allow you to understand it, or - crucially - relate to it.
The only central problem with the film then is probably that script, as the way it tackles theme often feels forced and inorganic as characters blurt things out of the blue such as "happiness is a choice," "when it's over it's over," and "that's a fairy-tale, and those don't come true." As if that wasn't awkward enough, much of the character development we get is read out to us, and there are even sequences in which characters literally mutter explanations of what we're being shown on screen.
In other words then, one of cinema's most basic rules isn't always obeyed - that you show as much as you can without telling the audience everything. That's especially frustrating here because the film shows what it's showing so damn well as director Shawn Welling and cinematographer Duncan Johnson do an incredible job constructing individual scenes and framing the desolate landscape to build atmosphere and tension brilliantly.
Seriously, the real star of this movie is mother nature, with beautiful shots of the landscape and the wildlife within it bringing a very tangible sense of what it's like to be Jean living at the mercy of the earth, and in fact that atmosphere is so all-consuming some of the time that it may genuinely have a physical effect on its audience provoking goose bumps or perhaps the need to don an extra cardigan or two. That's something that only the very best filmmakers manage when filming the natural environment, and the affect that this film has on its audience can be compared to that of Jean-Marc Vallée's 'Wild' or Joe Carnahan's 'The Grey' in that sense.
That's one big compliment to pay, and the fact that this particular picture was made on such a comparatively small budget to those incredible works makes it a thoroughly impressive achievement. Couple that with some good performances where Isabella Blake-Thomas and Grandad Michael Pickering share a rather touching relationship when the script doesn't get in the way, as well as a score from Bill Hagara that generally works well, what you've got is a film where atmosphere and mood is the real take-away.
In the end then, Jean (2018) may not work brilliantly from the thematic stand-point that it's trying to because its script lacks finesse, but what it does do is build an all-consuming picture of the natural environment surrounding its central characters to make everything tangible and engaging. That production value is extremely impressive from a film with such a small budget, but it just goes to show that cinema is one very powerful tool in whatever form it takes. So, whilst it wants to be about a lot of things, visual power is the real thing you should take away from Jean.
Final Score: 7 out of 10.
The Meg • Run time 1:53 • Rated PG-13 - for action/peril, bloody images and some language