King Jack (2015)

25 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For faithful readers of my blog, it should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of the Coming Of Age Tale. Among my favorite films are War Eagle, Arkansas, Stand by Me, and Tex…and Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls, still the best Made In Arkansas short film I’ve seen. When Coming Of Age Tales are done right, they can capture something special, real, and effective. And for the most part, Felix Thompson’s debut feature, “King Jack,” does capture something unique when it’s not delivering a certain distracting element. But I’ll get to that shortly.

Set in upstate New York, “King Jack” shows a couple days in the life of a 15-year-old kid named Jack (Charlie Plummer) who is heading down a dangerous road in life. He’s attending summer school, his brother’s a violent punk who works at a gas station, and he often gets into trouble; in the film’s opening scene, he’s seen spray painting (arguably) the most offensive word in the English language on the garage door of the house owned by his bully’s family. His bully is an older kid named Shane (Danny Flaherty) who constantly tortures Jack whenever he gets a chance. One day, Jack is left to care for the younger cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), for a while after his mother has had a recent breakdown. Ben is quiet and shy and hasn’t got a prayer when Shane targets both Jack and Ben, and he and his friends go after them. The bullies manage to nab Ben and torment him in one of many shockingly realistic brutal scenes. Now, Jack must learn a hard lesson in standing up for other people, while Ben also learns to roll up his sleeves at a crucial point.

I must confess: I was ready to give “King Jack” a mixed review right after I saw it at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival (screened soon after the Tribeca Film Festival, where it received an Audience Award) because so much time was spent with this character of Shane, who I felt was a one-dimensional cardboard-cutout bully not unlike the knife-wielding greaser in Stephen King’s “It.” I felt he was horrendous for no other purpose than…to be horrendous. This isn’t a knock against Danny Flaherty who plays the role well, but I was bored by the role, I wanted him to go away, and when I knew the film was going to be more about Jack’s struggles with his bullying, I was hoping there’d be a reasonable explanation as to why he’s acting this way. I never like bullies in movies unless there’s a reason for their behavior (or unless they’re funny; see Biff in Back to the Future).

But then, I thought more about it during a long drive home. I thought about when I was a kid and I was getting beat up in a schoolyard or humiliated at a dance. Some of the time, I actually provoked my bullies for stupid reasons, some of which had to do with the previous beating. Then I thought about Jack’s introduction in the movie; he’s defacing his bully’s family’s garage! He’s asking for it. And what does he do when he and Ben encounter the bullies? He throws a rock at his head! He put himself and his younger, smaller cousin in peril against a kid who should be picking on someone his own size but clearly won’t. And that’s when I realized this film knows more about young people than I thought. (And I could be wrong, but I think I recall some lines of dialogue that vaguely explain how this began.)

The stuff with the bullies makes “King Jack” feel like a thriller, but the film does take time out to show other adventures for Jack and Ben, such as a truly terrific scene involving truth or dare between the boys and two neighborhood girls and a scene that shows Jack thinking he’s getting lucky with a girl he likes more but in for a dangerous surprise. The film also captures the way most of today’s teenagers talk (though, I have to wonder if kids today still really use the word “doofus,” which I heard twice in the film)—standoffish at some, mockingly to groups of friends, honest to one friend, cussing out everyone they dislike/hate, and so forth. Writer-director Felix Thompson’s dialogue is well-chosen, and cinematographer Brandon Roots shoots it like a documentary, adding realism to the film. I know the shaking camera is a gimmick that has worn out its welcome, but sometimes it’s needed to further the effect. By the time the inevitable climax comes around, in which Jack must face Shane yet again and make an important choice, you feel the film’s intensity. And the violence doesn’t back down either; whenever someone gets punched, you can always feel like it hurts.

At the center of it all is newcomer Charlie Plummer as Jack. Plummer is excellent in the role of a complex kid trying to survive in a cruel world. You can practically feel the emotional baggage he carries with him at all times. Plummer is also successful at showing us an effectively subtle character arc—by the beginning of the film, he’s self-centered, but by the end of the film, he’s standing up for his cousin, well-played by Cory Nichols.

It’s hardly fair to argue against the bully character anymore. But something I will argue against is the purpose of Ben having a mentally unstable mother. That never goes anywhere, and I feel like his character arc of bravery after apprehension could’ve been set up in a simpler way. Another problem I have with the film is the ending. It seemed like it stopped rather than resolved itself. But…perhaps “King Jack” was just meant to portray a day in the life of this kid, his family and his friends, and telling it straightforward (while avoiding allegory or commentary) may have worked in its favor after all. It got me to think, especially about the bully’s behavior, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

Ah hell, watch me change my rating after I see “King Jack” a second time. And chances are I will.

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