In the vein of Harmony Korine and David Gordon Green, writer-director Felix Thompson’s feature debut, “King Jack,” owes a lot to its influences. The coming-of-age tale is quietly poetic, authentically lived-in and achingly sincere, just as both Green’s “George Washington” and Korine’s “Gummo” were. But with that said, Thompson doesn’t quite master their somber lyricism quite as deftly. For all its grounded performances, focused character work and attention to gritty-and-grimy detail, there’s something unmistakably familiar about it all. Thompson lacks the bleeding individuality found in the pictures of Korine and Green, and because of this, he never quite establishes a voice or vision wholeheartedly his own. But it would be near-sighted to suggest “King Jack” holds no power.
Bolstered by a great lead performance from the immensely talented Charlie Plummer, Thompson’s first film is an unflinching, intimate and never-less-than-brutal examination of young adulthood, a wisely understated character study centered on the titular Jack (Plummer), a young boy living with his low-income family and struggling to cover his crippled masculinity, raging hormones, and insecurities and inexperience with an unconvincing swagger. Forever berated by his older brother Tom (Christian Madsen), picked on mercilessly by Shane (Danny Flaherty), an upperclassman bully determined to beat Jack to a pulp, and constantly overlooked by his busy single mother (Erin Davie), he’s always been the low man in the plan. His missing father once considered him a king, hence the title, but his brother nicknamed him Scab and that’s what ultimately stuck. He’s never lived up to his potential because few have actually seen any in him, so he spends his day getting into trouble by spray-painting the garage door of his enemy’s dad and stealing.
But after a not-quite-isolated incident with his estranged aunt finds Jack forced to watch over his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols), our protagonist finds himself asserted with power and responsibility he’s never been handed before. Although initially reluctant to give Ben the time of day, after playing baseball, trying to crack open the windows of an abandoned yardboat, and chatting about their favorite superheroes, Jack finds that they’re not all that different, and that, if he plays his cards right, he might imprint some wisdom and influence onto his younger peer. It soon becomes a day spent chasing away bullies, catching up with a few chummy girl classmates, sneaking into parties and some reckless endangerment of their young lives for good measure. And while Jack realizes that he’s not the king of the world, he learns how he can still stand tall.
Although it contains some appropriately haunting imagery at times, primarily with some strikingly hard-hitting violence directed at young children, “King Jack” is missing the overall staying power of similar, better pictures. The story is riddled with cliches, although its refreshingly low-key presentation helps to offset some of its more recognizable beats. It’s sometimes powerful, but at the same time, it seems a little too quick to shock in the latter half. At a mere 80 minutes, “King Jack” might be a little too airy and reserved for its own good, too. It comes across a little stretched out and it never quite earns its (just barely) feature length running time. But when “King Jack” connects, it still finds poignant ways to be the immersive, tender and impactful movie it strives to be.
The performances all around are stunningly truthful. Plummer’s sensitive, layered-beyond-his-years turn is the highlight, but following not far behind is Flaherty, a bully with an uncanny resemblance to Kurt Cobain and one of the best villains you’ll see this year. Flaherty makes his Shane a hulking, unrelenting force of vengeance. Every punch he gives Jack, and every attack he launches, is deeply felt — to the point where you question the safety of the actors on set. Like Plummer, it’s astounding work that shows a varied performer with a strong future ahead of him.
Further complemented by Brandon Root’s sunkissed cinematography, Paul Penczner’s graceful editing and a touching score from Bryan Senti, “King Jack” might not have the freshest ingredients in the indie kitchen, but it still knows how to stir up something with a kick. And even when it’s in the shadow of other movies that have traversed this territory to greater effect, the talented young performers at hand bring a rooted sense of reality that still makes it sing with rhapsodic gravitas. Thompson’s debut doesn’t necessarily reign supreme, but if nothing else, it crowns Plummer as a talent to watch. [B]