Though at first blush The Ballad of Jack and Rose may appear to tell a highly specific story far removed from typical American lives, writer-director Rebecca Miller freely uses the unusual as an allegory for the most usual of subjects: parentage and the rocky path from childhood to adulthood. Miller's observational direction takes in impeccable naturalistic acting from a strong ensemble to create a seemingly spontaneous narrative full of vivid characters and situations.
Ostensibly, the "big theme" of The Ballad of Jack and Rose is dashed idealism. On an island off the East Coast, Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) inhabits property that was once a burgeoning commune of his own vision. In 1986, when the film is set, he maintains what's left of it with his sixteen-year-old daughter Rose (piercing young beauty Camilla Belle). Rose hasn't been inside a school for years, and her happily insular life with Daddy will brook no disruption. However, the years have hardened Jack's idealism into a hopeful but measured realism. Weakened by a heart ailment, he's straining just to maintain a stalemate with environmentally unconscious developer Marty Rance (Beau Bridges) and, worse, knows Rose may soon have to face life alone.
Jack pays a booty call on his lover Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and, in a blunt post-coital confab, offers her money to move in with him. Jack needs care, and the blooming Rose needs a feminine influence. The proposal is fraught with unspoken emotional consequences, but Kathleen agrees, packing up her belongings and her two sons, and relocating to the close quarters of the former commune. Rose immediately regards Kathleen as an interloper and her sharply contrasting sons—overweight, sensitive Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and sullen beanpole Thaddius (Paul Dano)—as her potential deflowerers.
Though her garden runs a bit wild around its borders, Miller cultivates some strikingly fragrant patches. Dialogues between Jack and Rose, Jack and Kathleen, Jack and Marty, and Rose and each boy are psychologically astute and skillfully advance the story. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) elegantly photographs the exterior and interior action, as well as Miller's unfortunately heavyhanded imagery. As Rose becomes pubescent, a tree oozes sap-like blood; as she has her first sexual experience, a snake goes on the loose (the soundtrack's tissue of balladeers likewise distracts more than it enhances).
The most fulfilling metaphor is the commune, finally revived in home movies. Jack refers to it as "an experiment," one which observers agree has failed. Rose's intense, near-incestuous father-love flares up on Kathleen's arrival, so the daughter sticks her own experimentation in her father's face. Our lives, Miller suggests, are full of failed experiments, but when it comes to kids, one cannot afford to fail. Glaswegian by birth, Jack's a naturalized citizen who chose flower-child America for his home. As such, his most idealistic value is freedom, something that, as a father, he cannot give his dangerous stunted daughter.
Bridges' pitch-perfect snake-oil salesman tells Jack, "You can't stop progress. You can't stop the future." Day-Lewis masterfully conveys the weariness and anger instilled by years of ineffectual rebellion. Jack and Rose's contrastingly lively existence flourishes only as long as time is held at bay: they can't live without each other and rue the inevitable day. With patient ease, Miller observes as all of Jack's intense issues come dramatically to a head and Rose claims her fatalistic freedom.