The name Felix Thompson is to be added to lists of up-and-coming directors to keep an eye on. His first feature, King Jack took home the audience award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. Kicking the tyres of a familiar teenage coming-of-age tale, Thompson’s strikingly assured and unflinching debut pumps new life into a well-trodden genre. With the running time at a svelte 80 minutes, the Australian-born American can’t afford to waste any time and he tells an engrossing story with streamlined efficiency without diminishing any of its impact. Spray painting see you next Tuesday in enormous black letters across a double garage is never going to win you many friends.
Far from a sympathetic introduction, this is nonetheless how we first meet Jack (Charlie Plummer), a borderline delinquent and foul mouthed fifteen year-old, bored out of his mind in a blue collar town with the prospect of summer school looming. Setting the tone for a piece that never pulls its punches, the eponymous lead doesn’t deserve his crown as the curtain rises but it’s hard to dispute he does when it falls. In a breakout performance from Plummer, the young actor exudes all the anger, uncertainty and awkwardness of adolescence with an accomplished turn that combines forced bravado and paralysing insecurity in equal measure. Jack’s royal title, given him by a now absent father, angered older brother Tom (Christian Madsen, uncanny son of Michael) who instead christened him “Scab”, a nickname propagated about town thanks to Tom’s high school popularity.
A distant, uncaring mother (Erin Davie) prefers not to ask questions so as to hear no lies so it is only when Jack’s younger cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), comes to stay that he grudgingly finds a friend, confidant and wingman. Vicious, older bully Shane (Danny Flaherty) is among those who address Jack by the derogatory term and brutal acts that far exceed retribution for the opening act of vandalism come thick and fast. Thompson does not shy away from the severe violence to which Jack and Ben are subjected; it is a bold move by the writer-director that elevates his debut, landing a number of punches far above the generic. Brandon Roots’ fluid handheld camerawork follows the boys as they freewheel, or more often are chased, on bikes and on foot around the largely deserted streets of Hudson Valley, NY.
The relationship dynamic and differences between the cousins is keenly inspected by Thompson. Ben, still closer to childhood than adolescence, isn’t afraid to bare all in a game of truth or dare with two of Jack’s female peers, the latter crippled by inhibitions despite previously sexting with a young lady. Cigarettes, beer and a first kiss are all thrown into a melting pot of teenage angst that is simultaneously modern and traditional. Bonding over a backyard game of baseball or throwing stones at an abandoned boat on a strip of wasteland bathed in the softy, dreamy light of sunset there is a beauty in simple pleasures and innocence to contrast the harsh realities of growing up. King Jack is finely-executed by Thompson: expect the young filmmaker to gain many more loyal subjects in years to come.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens