King Jack (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Felix Thompson’s beautiful and engaging debut feature “King Jack” is a story about a teenager who learns the hard way how to care for someone else other than himself. It is told with patience, complexity, and searing honesty. The protagonist is a delinquent and immediately we ask ourselves why we should care for him and why he is worth following. And just as quickly we are provided answers—superficial, at least initially, but surprising and deep later on. Its fingers are right on the pulse of what most fifteen-year-olds care about during that time their lives: to make friends, to be respected, to be seen as individuals. So few coming-of-age films manage to avoid a false note. This is one of them.
Charlie Plummer plays Jack, a young man who struggles to make genuine connections with his peers. He has a crush on a girl named Robyn (Scarlet Lizbeth) but fails to engage her in conversation. And so he sends her a shirtless picture of himself via text. When she asks for a naked photo, he doesn’t think twice. Clearly, this is a boy willing to grasp at anything that remotely resembles friendship. Is he even aware he’s lost? His mother, Karen (Erin Davie), seems to pick up on it, but her priority is to make ends meet. Jack is confronted only when there are cuts and bruises on his body. But even then she fails to probe at what’s really going on. Perhaps she doesn’t want more headache. Without question, Karen cares for her son. But in some ways it is more important that she be able to put food on the table. I admired this take on a type of character too often pushed to the side in coming-of-age pictures.
We get a good look at where Jack and his family lives. They are poor but not destitute. There is no laughter in the home other than what can be heard on television. When Jack gets home from summer school, notice he doesn’t do homework. He drinks beer while playing video games. There are photographs hung on walls and picture frames sitting on shelves. The quality of the photos are poor, almost dim, blurry. You’d have to squint to appreciate the details. Notice that the pictures are at least five years old. It’s like time stopped when the father left or died. (We never learn what happens to him but his absence is ever-present.) Bright colors are nearly impossible to spot. They live in a blue-collar neighborhood where pretty much everyone knows each other. But the majority are not willing to speak up when there’s trouble. No one wants to be confronted, especially by the police. There is honor in silence.
When Jack is told that his twelve-year-old cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), is going to stay with them for a couple of days because his mother “is not herself,” Jack couldn’t believe it. He doesn’t want the responsibility of looking out for someone else. Deep down Jack knows he can’t even look after himself. This relationship is the heart of the picture because the sudden change forces us to look at a selfish character under a different light: we get glimpses of Jack the good brother instead of Jack the rabble-rouser. But just because a new factor is added into the household does not necessarily mean big changes are in store. Trouble tends to follow Jack. A sadistic bully (Danny Flaherty) aims to give Jack a hard time at every turn.
Notice how the humor comes across naturally. No one has to fall down a flight of stairs or is required to partake in gross-out humor. Jack and Ben are simply allowed to be the themselves—with one another, with other girls; humor is born out of their chemistry. Mainstream comedies aimed for teenagers can learn a thing or ten from independent pictures. Sometimes a situation is funnier when it is allowed be instead of forcing it. Observe the rhythm and flow of the baseball scene. Of the truth-or-dare scene. Of the two cousins trying to rekindle that special connection.
“King Jack” possesses a dark undercurrent. It makes a strong statement regarding the cycle of violence in a way that is bleak but realistic—especially in a neighborhood where Jack resides. But Thompson ensures to provide a glimmer of hope. The ending works as a litmus test of what we think about how an environment can shape or scar a person. A part of me wants to believe Jack will be all right given he summons the inner strength to graduate high school, to get out of the small town, to find and pursue what he loves, and to experience a bigger world. But a part of me couldn’t help but consider he might not be strong enough. I hope that’s not the case.