King Jack (4 stars)

King Jack

Frank and sensitive US coming-of-ager from debut director Felix Thompson

Sensitive depictions of the difficulties of teenagehood are familiar territory for independent and arthouse cinema; but as long as societal and technological shifts alter the detail of the experience, there’s room for updates to the genre, and as long as youth is idealised and fetishised by advertising and mainstream culture, there’s a prevailing current to swim against.

Centred on a strong performance by Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Plummer as the eponymous – though far from kingly – Jack, this debut feature from writer-director Felix Thompson is at once harsh and wistful in its depiction of off-the-rails youth in a depressed New York town. If slightly prone to cliché in terms of its spangly soundtrack and dazzled magic-hour light, it evokes its rough blue-collar context and range of troubled relationships with uncompromising frankness and admirably scant sentimentality.

Jack was once his father’s favourite; the father may be long gone, but the resentment of his brother Tom (Christian Madsen, lookalike son of Reservoir Dogs star Michael) lives on. Their put-upon mother Karen (Erin Davie) is seldom around, leaving Jack to combat for himself the fierce rivalries and casual cruelties of neighbourhood and school life. That Jack likes a popular, sexy girl (Robyn, played by Scarlet Lizbeth) who doesn’t merit his affection feels almost inevitable in the context of this kind of film – but the twist her disloyalty takes is very modern in its character. The appearance of his weedy, overweight cousin Ben (Cory Nichols), who’s demanding of his company, meanwhile, confronts him with the moral challenge of the bullied: succumb to the temptation of emulating your tormentors, or take the high road and evolve beyond their worldview?

King Jack takes its callow protagonist to bleak places (its depiction of violence is particularly unsparing), but ultimately has observations to make about survival, self-respect and learning to recognise the good in other people that are pretty relevant whatever age you happen to be.

Selected release from Fri 26 Feb.

King Jack

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • US
  • 15
  • Directed by: Felix Thompson
  • Cast: Charlie Plummer, Christian Madsen, Cory Nichols, Erin Davie
  • UK release: 26 February 2016

Teenaged Jack (Plummer) lives in a small New York town under the eye of local bullies, and when his weedy cousin (Nichols) comes to stay, Jack's loyalties are tested. Sensitive but frank and unsentimental coming-of-age story, with unsparing depictions of violence and useful things to say about survival and self-respect.