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Originally published Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 3:03 PM

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Movie review

'Jolene': Dan Ireland's poignant film follows heroine's 10 years of misadventures

"Jolene," Dan Ireland's film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's short story about the 10-year, "Candide"-like journey of a young woman surviving disastrous relationships and misadventures, is poignant and psychologically astute.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Jolene,' with Jessica Chastain, Rupert Friend, Dermot Mulroney, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Vartan, Frances Fisher. Directed by Dan Ireland, from a screenplay by Dennis Yares, based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. 115 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, some violence and drug use. Seven Gables.

"If they didn't have a mirror, they had me," says the title character of Dan Ireland's poignant and psychologically astute adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's short story "Jolene."

Narrating a scene in which she recalls painting portraits of fellow teen prisoners at an institution where mirrors are confiscated, Jolene (Jessica Chastain) describes how she made money at that task. But she also, essentially, is describing the film's entire tale of her 10-year odyssey through a "Candide"-like succession of misadventures.

An orphan who survived abuses in foster care, Jolene (whom we observe from ages 15 to 25) rambles through life with determination but few boundaries and a deep uncertainty about her roots and identity. She is indeed a handy mirror for far stronger, if tormented, personalities who project onto her reflections of their own desperate yearnings.

Chastain proves near-heroic embodying Jolene's innate strength and incremental wisdom. Yet she also makes us understand how the heroine's wobbly resistance to manipulative characters is overwhelmed time and again.

In an episodic story with ever-shifting environments and visual palettes (rural South Carolina, Phoenix, Tulsa, Southern California), Jolene's red hair is the constant torch of an irrepressible, even artistic spirit.

We meet her as a teen bride seduced by her husband's uncle (Dermot Mulroney). That catastrophe puts Jolene under the control of an emotionally needy attendant (Frances Fisher) at juvenile detention, followed by a drug-dealing tattoo artist (Rupert Friend).

Another chapter with a Vegas mobster and aesthete (Chazz Palminteri) precedes one involving a wealthy psychopath (Michael Vartan).

Ireland, co-founder of the Seattle International Film Festival, knows Jolene will draw compassion from some viewers and the dismay of others irked by her poor judgment. Fair enough. The director encourages our honest, involved responses.

Jolene's journey ultimately speaks for itself. The film's final chapter, cleverly set in Hollywood, recasts her story in profound terms of classic American self-invention, from "Moby-Dick" to Marilyn Monroe to "Mad Men's" Don Draper. The question of who Jolene really is begins transforming into the soothing stuff of dreams — perhaps only in her own mind, or in the whole wide world.

Tom Keogh:

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