Luke and Jo is a thoughtful and patient film which places two artists at different points in their development side by side for a weekend of self-discovery. Erik Odom and Andie Morgenlander, the titular Luke and Jo, share some genuine moments of connection in their scenes together. Giving these actors the chance to improvise lends an immediacy which makes the film feel personal and vital, despite some unevenness in the pacing and cinematography. Luke and Jo is a good film that could have been a great one, had director Joshua Overbay’s voice as a filmmaker not been diluted by slight missteps.
Luke, an aspiring screenwriter, places what could be the final strain on his tenuous marriage when he travels to a film festival in a last-ditch effort to jump-start his career. A chance encounter with another starving artist, Jo, sparks a weekend of romantic tension and dramatic encounters which could alter the trajectory of their lives. The scenario is one that will be familiar to millennials of a certain age: the struggle to launch a fulfilling career in an economic setting which demands constant compromise in order to stave off abject poverty. The film does an admirable job of laying out the parallel narratives of its characters’ lives, and placing them in a realistic enough context to believe in Luke’s suicidal ideation and Jo’s reckless decisions.
There are hints of the kind of improvised emotional gymnastics any fan of John Cassavetes would appreciate. The performances would have more room to breathe, however, without the overwrought soundtrack, which lays an unnecessary layer of ambient moodiness that only distracts from the film’s most tense moments. Odom carries the film through its uneven plot with his nuanced depiction of an artist who is confident in his work, even when no one else is. One scene in particular, in which he pitches his script to a detached and arrogant producer, stands as one of the film’s strongest moments. Unimpeded by over-stylized editing or intrusive mood music, Odom expertly flits between passion, self-doubt, and anger as he attempts to convey his artistic vision.
Meanwhile, Morgenlander’s Jo narrowly avoids manic-pixie-dream-girl territory as she navigates a musical career in its infancy, a strained relationship with her father, and the sudden emotional labor of becoming Luke’s only support. Director Joshua Overbay relies too heavily on Morgenlander’s expressive eyes, frequently lingering on her face for longer than is necessary. What should be brief moments of recognition become overlong shots that telegraph emotional intensity which would have felt more earned had it been achieved with greater restraint. Other strange choices in the film’s cinematography do little to contribute to the story over all; a more intentional visual style would have served Luke and Jo better than the over-reliance on colored filters and depth of field.
Luke and Jo‘s greatest success is its unwillingness to treat Luke with more respect than he deserves. Although he is set up as the protagonist of the film, his role as the underdog artist is superseded by the reality of his personal life, and his failure to uphold those responsibilities. While Luke is held to account for his disconnection with reality, Jo never gets the same treatment. The film seems to be comfortable sparing Jo the kind of critical lens with which it examines Luke, which feels uneven given the effort to tell their stories in parallel. Thanks to the efforts of the film’s stars, however, Luke and Jo succeeds in telling an interesting and important story for a generation of aspiring artists.