King Jack—the story of a bullied delinquent learning some big life lessons after his young cousin comes to visit—is a solid addition to the coming-of-age genre, but it isn’t exactly groundbreaking. At its best, King Jack recalls the work of David Gordon Green (excluding his forays into stoner comedies), with naturalistic dialogue and dreamy cinematography that work together to ground viewers in the summertime melancholy of its protagonist’s headspace. It’s difficult to talk about King Jack without referring to other film directors because Felix Thompson (making his feature debut) wears his influences entirely on his sleeve. Besides Gordon-Green, anyone familiar with the work of Jeff Nichols—or even our very own Shane Meadows—will find King Jack to be more than a little derivative.
But derivative does not always mean bad, and King Jack is ultimately, a very charming—if slight—film. This is largely due to the fantastic leading performance from Charlie Plummer, whose depiction of adolescent malaise is note-perfect, with exactly the right blend of insecurity, vulnerability and awkwardness that only ever seems false when the script lets him down.
The script is the film’s weakness; tending to veer off into clichés and jarring tonal shifts. Its early scenes are the strongest, they focus on how Jack deals with the humiliation and cruelty of his everyday life. A third act decision to examine the cyclical nature of violence and bullying has the potential to be interesting, and the intensity of the brutality is appropriately difficult to watch. But it unfortunately lacks the gut-wrenching and emotional impact of a film like This Is England, because any sense of character development is only given to Jack’s tormentor, too late into the film.
It would be easy to criticise King Jack for being naïve in its presentation of poverty—or for not fully exploring some of the darker themes at its centre, but optimism is an important for coming-of-age stories. Though the film is checkered with troubling moments, it’s clear that Thompson is more interested in examining the healing powers of companionship and the importance of responsibility than forcing the audience to endure 90 minutes of unrelenting emotional distress.
Though King Jack is undoubtedly a flawed film, audiences should find plenty to enjoy in its sincere and tender approach to familiar subject matter. Thompson’s decision to draw so heavily from the canon of small town dramas could be read as a lack of confidence from a first-time director, but there’s enough good stuff in King Jack that a second film from the director could be something worth anticipating.