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Friday, June 17, 2016

Review: King Jack

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2016 at 2:49 PM

Charlie Plummer and Cory Nichols in King Jack
  • Charlie Plummer and Cory Nichols in King Jack

The humble 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 stick with us in a personal way and become part of the popular culture — distill something of what it means to grow up, without overindulging sentimentality or nostalgia.

A low-budget, independent first feature from New York-based writer-director Felix Thompson, King Jack not only 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 the point of 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. It adds up to a bit more than the sum of its modest parts.

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, but 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), even if you don’t notice his last name in the credits.

King Jack gradually reveals some 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.

King Jack begins an exclusive run at Zeitgeist Films tonight, June 17. More info here.

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