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Review: King Jack – “Gut-wrenchingly affecting coming-of-age tale”

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It’s rare to find a film that reconciles you with the world but that’s exactly how you’re going to feel after watching King Jack, writer/director Felix Thompson’s understated yet so gut-wrenchingly affecting coming-of-age tale about finding self-worth. It’s no surprise the film has won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered last year, and the “Someone To Watch” Independent Spirit Award just this past weekend.

The title character, played with understated brilliance by up-and-comer Charlie Plummer, is a teen from a tough hood in small town America who’s stuck in summer school and hates every minute of it, especially as he has to survive the harassment of a vicious older bully and his thugs. The premise may sound familiar and after all, teen dramas are the bread and butter of film festivals and feature debuts, yet King Jack has all it takes to stand out of the average indie flick zone: execution.

It all starts with the screenplay and filmmaker Felix Thompson’s authentic and acutely observant writing portrays a world we’ve seen countless times but he does so with a hard-to-achieve, genuine feeling that what you’re watching isn’t artificial and rehearsed, despite still being a work of fiction performed by actors. That same quality leaps off the page and it’s showcased in the brilliant way he directs his lovely young cast that shine at portraying the world they gravitate in so vividly.

Only as the film enters its final act we learn the meaning behind its title referring to the nickname Jack used to be called by. However, since the beginning of the film, the only nickname he gets called is “scab”, something he profoundly hates, especially when coming from Shane (Danny Flaherty), the nasty bully who torments him. This whole nickname element is actually pivotal to the thematic unraveling of the story hence it demands to be kept spoiler-free and deserves to be discovered the way the filmmaker intends us to for the emotionally impactful way the story affects us when it’s revealed.

Jack lives with his overworked single mother who struggles to make ends meet and his loser older brother who works as a mechanic and gambles his minimum wage away and doesn’t miss a chance to belittle Jack. It is obvious how the lack of a father figure, the bullying and the broken home environment he lives in affect Jack’s self-esteem and the only thing that keeps him afloat is the crush on Karen (Erin Davie) a girl at school who just leads him on whilst the sweet Harriet (Yainis Ynoa) likes him but he’s oblivious to it, in classic teen fashion.

As if summer wasn’t already miserable enough for Jack, his mother entrusts him with taking care of his little cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) who’s been sent out to them for the weekend after his mother got hospitalized for depression issues. Jack is used to being a loner but tries to spend time with Ben, playing baseball and dragging him on his wandering around the run-down neighbourhood. When they inevitably bump into Shane and his gang, becoming an easy target, Ben gets caught in the process of running for dear life but Jack can’t muster the courage to give himself up to the bullies in his little cousin’s place.

Any further plot detail would ruin the emotional experience this wonderful film delivers. Despite all of this may sound familiar, Felix Thompson proves in his feature debut that he understands the power of cinema and his great merit is to create a piece of filmmaking that can be enjoyed by a wide audience despite its minimalism and realistic approach. We’re frankly tired of Hollywood’s polished teen movies and TV shows starring older actors with supermodel looks. One of the greatest qualities of King Jack is its age-appropriate, diverse cast and they all impress for great naturalism in portraying the world depicted by the story.

Thompson is rather self-assured in leading this young cast and especially Charlie Plummer (Jack) and Cory Nichols (Ben) are outstanding at selling the development of a meaningful friendship between these estranged cousins in a way that’s organic and graceful and never feels forced. This is a film whose mood and style are reminiscent of something like James Ponsoldt’s beautiful The Spectacular Now (2013) orJordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings Of Summer (2013) and it’s got a hopeful, uplifting message about finding beauty within the bleak. We can’t wait to see what’s next for this promising filmmaker and his wonderful cast.

5-out-of-5

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