The coming-of-age story may be the most wide-ranging of all film genres. Movies like Boyhood, Pan's Labyrinth and Y Tu Mama Tambien all fit the bill but have almost nothing in common other than artistic success and teenage protagonists. The best coming-of-age stories — which become part of the popular culture — distill what it means to grow up, without overindulging sentimentality.
A low-budget, independent first feature from New York-based writer-director Felix Thompson, King Jack avoids the pitfalls of the genre but also pulls no punches regarding the harsh and unforgiving world of the American teenager. It tells a simple but harrowing tale of entrenched bullying that escalates to mortal danger in a small, dead-end town. Well-drawn characters are matched by a series of breakout performances from the young cast, ensuring that just about every scene rings true.
King Jack covers a single, pivotal weekend in the life of its protagonist. When we meet 15-year-old Jack (Charlie Plummer), he's making the terrible mistake of tagging an obscenity on the garage door of an older teen, Shane (Danny Flaherty), who apparently has been bullying him for a long time. Jack's 12-year-old cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) arrives for the weekend with his own set of problems, but soon finds himself at the center of Jack's ongoing war.
Thompson shot King Jack mostly in early morning or evening hours to give his film the warm glow of a well-worn memory, and a gentle, acoustic guitar-based soundtrack bolsters the sometimes-wistful vibe. But the film stops short of romanticizing teenage years in the manner of many Hollywood movies. Thompson opts to focus on the almost unimaginable cruelty young people inflict on one another even as they rail against restrictions imposed on them by the adult world.
It's a fine line for a small film to walk and the ensemble cast confronts the challenge head-on. Plummer embraces the offhand alienation of the budding juvenile delinquent but leaves just enough room for his character to evolve. Christian Madsen is perfectly cast as Jack's older brother and generally poor role model Tom. His screen presence recalls that of his father Michael Madsen (The Hateful Eight).
King Jack gradually reveals family history that illuminates the cyclical nature of violence, especially in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else and bad blood never really goes away. A lesser film might have taken that as a cue to deliver an easy lesson on bullying and social responsibility. But life is rarely so tidy, which is why King Jack is more interested in finding small moments powerful enough to alter a troubled teen's path forward. There are no easy answers to life's big questions, and accepting that truth may be what coming of age is all about.