Felix Thompson’s independent feature film “King Jack” (2015) is a very familiar coming-of-age tale. On paper, it seems lean and could be termed as a ‘cliché’. But, on-screen the performances are delivered with gravity and the lyrical frames emit youthful despair and exuberance in a balanced manner that we can’t stop ourselves from getting impressed. The film doesn’t have anything spectacularly memorable to make it standout among the hundreds of coming-of-age movies released in the past five years or so. It is unmistakably predictable; it’s definitely lacks the contemplative nature of recent coming-of-age indie films “Hide Your Smiling Faces” or “The Fits”. Nevertheless, “King Jack” held a power over me because it was very relatable and heart-warming. Since, I am the kind of cinephile who cherishes a close-to-heart, home-grown cinema than a blockbuster film, I would definitely recommend it. And, there’s one simple significant reason to watch “King Jack”: Charlie Plummer – the amazing performer who instills a distinct individuality to the central teen character.
Felix Thompson has written the script based on the crazy, personal experiences of growing up. We all would have experienced the crazy & lovely things when growing up – from getting bullied to feeling anxious around the opposite sex. It’s the time we learn that we are not the center of universe or even the center of our family. There would have been the endurance tests to harden our exterior & interior. We all would have faced some rough weekend when our parents or siblings aren’t around for us to seek help. So, despite unfurling in some remote part of America, the narrative resonates with universal emotions. The script does falter in the way it ticks off the narrative beats with superficiality. The opening scene, however, is so unflinching and unexpected. The protagonist Jack – referred with a cruel nickname ‘Scab’ – is seen spray-painting the word ‘c-u-n-t’ in gigantic letters on someone’s garage doors. This vandalism by the lanky teen protagonist later brings some context as the sadistic older bully Shane (Danny Flaherty) catches Jack for the vandalism and sprays paint on Jack’s face.
Within the first few minutes, Thompson lays out what’s troubling Jack and what fascinates him: he takes picture of himself and sends it to a girl named Robyn; he is insecure and endlessly bullied by Shane & co; he lives with his working mother and elder brother Tom (Christian Madsen). The dilapidated houses, rusting playgrounds, and over-grown weeds pass off the hardships of living in small town America. The absentee father brings extra affliction to the internal wounds of Jack. Mother and brother love Jack but none of them seems to be look at his potential for doing things (except for girl classmate Harriet). A voicemail announces the arrival of younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols), whose mother – Jack’s aunt – has had an ‘incident’ (referring to nervous breakdown). Ben is a quiet kid who has also earned a cruel nickname ‘schizo’. Mom asks Jack to look after Ben for few days. It’s the first time Jack has received the power and responsibility to look after someone. Although he is initially reluctant to allow Ben tag alongside him, after a game of baseball and little talk, Jack finds out they are not all that different. The boys have one crazy day as they are hunted down by the bully Shane (after another violent confrontation), while also playing a bittersweet truth-or-dare game with couple of friendly girl classmates. Will Jack stand up to his abusers and strengthen his bond with Ben?
What drives the material away from its pitfalls is the gritty and richly-detailed direction. The bullying scenes are filmed in a realistic manner which passes off the physical pain experienced by Jack. Director Thompson stands up to the challenge of visualizing the violent scenes by making us feel the weight of each punch without being exploitative. The final confrontation scene was extraordinarily filmed because a slight stretching of the violence on-screen would have totally affected the chilling effect. Some of the cliched resolutions don’t bring the feeling of irritation due to the director’s low-key approach. When Tom asks Jack, “When was the last time you did somethin’ for somebody else?” we know that Jack is going to suddenly change his ways, but the naturalism in the staging and performances doesn’t annoy us. Apart from very good character sketches, the only time we could feel the presence of thematic richness (in the script) is when Jack painfully explains the nicknames he lost and earned. The sequence where Tom terrorizes Shane was also brilliantly realized. Both these scenes vividly present the perpetual cycle of abuse (physical as well as verbal), eventually leading to brutal bullying.
The fluidity in the conversations and the tougher games played between Jack and Shane reminded me of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age movies. The hazy summer atmosphere & sunlight-drenched frames (cinematography by Brandon Root) exhibits the characters’ yearning. Felix Thompson has filmed it on Kingston, New York (exudes the Americana beauty), but he wisely chooses to keep the town’s name out of the narrative to suggest the universal nature of it –could be felt by all angst-ridden teens from any small town. The young performers are uniformly great. They add incredible depth to some of the scenes which might look pretty flat on-paper. Plummer is spectacular as Jack. The mixture of bravado and vulnerability he brings on to his character keeps our eyes glued to the screen. Flaherty’s Shane is written in a very one-dimensional manner, but he brings out the fear & insecurity, lying beneath Shane’s aggression.
“King Jack” (80 minutes) is diffused with all the recognizable narrative beats of a coming-of-age drama. But, still the lyrical direction of first-time film-maker Thompson and the thoroughly immersive performances delivers a fine impact.