Movie Review: ‘King Jack’

Shot through a dreamy, instant-nostalgia haze reminiscent of an Instagram filter or a commercial for Pacifico beer, “King Jack” nonetheless eschews heady romanticism in favor of unaffected clarity. If no coming-of-age film can quite escape the nagging pull of nostalgia, “King Jack” does its best to remind us that being young ain’t easy, and for many teens, particularly those who grow up working-class, outside the boring comforts of middle-class suburbia, it can even be dangerous.

Jack (Charlie Plummer) is a rangy, unpopular teen growing up in a depressingly hardscrabble town, the kind of place where throwing rocks at an abandoned speedboat in a vacant lot counts as an acceptable form of entertainment. As with so many teenage boys, his primary modes are sullen and horny. When his mom asks him to watch his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) for the weekend, Jack’s not too happy about it, though considering Jack has no close friends, gets mocked by his school’s resident hot girls for sexting one of them a picture of his junk, is constantly on the run from a local bully, and consistently alienates the one girl who gives him the time of day, maybe he should welcome an ally.

Jack is a difficult character to sympathize with. He’s selfish and cowardly, and he consistently eggs on his own bullies. But Plummer plays him with a quiet yearning that is not exactly charming but is somehow captivating. In the film’s strongest moments, Plummer and Thompson make us identify with Jack not in spite of his personal weaknesses but because of them. He is lost and scared and impetuous and goofy, but we can ourselves in that. In the film’s weaker moments, however (such as an ostensibly moving soliloquy in which Jack explains his twin nicknames, “King Jack” and “Scab”), Thompson tips the balance of our sympathies too far, asking us to pity Jack for his victimization. This gives way to a third act that ties things up a little too neatly, allowing Jack to learn his lesson and prove his mettle, repairing relationships he has tested. It’s handled about as well as it can be, but it’s all very pre-approved and not terribly interesting.

The thing is, Thompson doesn’t need such screenwriting crutches because he directs with remarkable clarity. Even when the movie is mostly just watching Jack and Ben roam around, there is an easygoing precision to the scenes that marks Thompson as a director to watch out for. Thompson creates a sense of progression, a sense that one action leads to another, that can be missing in a lot of coming-of-age films. Actions have consequences here, and those consequences turn out to be pretty extreme. Jack’s coming of age revolves around the twin axes of sex and violence, and there are subtle suggestions that these two are related. Whenever Jack seems to be getting close to the former, the latter is never far behind. It’s touches like this that make “King Jack” such a promising debut. It may not be a perfect film, and it is ultimately hampered by its conventional script, but Thompson is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

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