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BY PUMA PERL | “King Jack,” the debut of writer and director Felix Thompson, takes place in the sort of depressed, rural town that nobody escapes. Everybody drinks, everybody smokes, few families are intact, and there is nothing to do. People barge into one another’s houses and lives. Violence is prevalent, even expected. The lives are as hemmed in as the town, surrounded by mountains and shot ways that keep both external and internal scenes in shadow. A lone railroad train runs through the town without so much as a railway station in sight. Kitchens have wall phones equipped with answering machines, and clothing and hairstyles could be from one of many eras. The main device that takes us into the present is the type of cell phones that are in constant use and serve to advance the story.
When the movie opens, we see Jack, the 15-year-old protagonist, getting revenge against the bullies who torment him the only way he knows how — spray painting an obscenity on a garage door. Naturally, he will get caught. He always gets caught, even before he has done anything. In his own home, his tired, single mother tells him to empty his pockets when he enters. “Check his shoes,” his older brother, who has also bullied him remorselessly throughout his life, chimes in. Jack is beaten and abused so regularly that it is part of his looks, a stray dog expecting to be kicked. In one scene, his mother notices that he has black paint on his face, but does not question the fresh bruises on his lips and eyes.
Early in the film, another character is introduced — Jack’s 13-year-old cousin, Ben, who will spend a few days there because his mother has had one of her habitual breakdowns. Ben is the heart of the movie, stoic and self-contained, and the only familial character who consistently displays a sense of values and self-worth. It is Jack’s job to take care of him, regardless of the unsafe environment that he must negotiate daily.
The lead bully, Shane, is a classic villain shown to be relentless to the point of psychopathology. On the other hand, Ben is just a little too amazing a 13-year-old, although this is not the fault of the actor, Cory Nichols, who is very endearing. It would have resonated more if Shane were seen a bit more humanely — terrible, but damaged, not unlike the brother, Tom, who despite his violence is a more layered character. It is also hard for an actor to pull off a one-note character such as this.
In general, I did like the acting, and one can’t help but root for Jack and his family, who are shown with all of their flaws and just enough background information to understand why they are where they are. Charlie Plummer’s Jack pisses us off, while at the same time we want to save him, and Christian Madsen’s Tom presents brute strength tempered with vulnerability. The female characters are more minor, but are realistically drawn. The unnamed town, though, remains the most powerful co-star — sad and claustrophobic despite the wide landscape, dark, with just a little bit of sun.
KING JACK | At the Tribeca Film Festival
Written & Directed by Felix Thompson
Runtime: 81 minutes
Sun., 4/26, 2:30pm at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St. btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
Sun., 4/19, 3pm & Fri., 4/24, 7:30pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park (102 North End Ave. at Vesey St.)
$18 ($3.50 phone & web reservation fee)
Visit tribecafilm.com/festival or call 646-502-5296