The story that writer/director Felix Thompson captures in his debut feature, King Jack, is a little slight to call it a “coming of age” story. It’s a vignette, playing out over a hazy summer weekend in the Hudson Valley, and while Jack (Charlie Plummer) may learn a lesson, something in me doubts that he’s actually grown up in any significant way by the end.
The location is surprisingly far north for a film that shares so much with moody Southerns from the likes of Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green. It’s a quiet place, seemingly removed from everywhere in that way anywhere outside of a big city can seem when you’re growing up and starting to feel your town’s limits like an ever-shrinking amniotic skin.
It’s also nearly bereft of adult supervision. Jack’s older brother, Tom (Christian Madsen), might have left school and gotten a job, but he’s still somewhere short of an adult. Their mother, Karen (Erin Davie), is too busy to pay close attention. When a family emergency means that his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) has to stay with them for the weekend, it falls to Jack to watch him, whether he likes it or not.
That leaves the kids Jack’s age to their own devices, as on the island from Lord of the Flies. Jack’s bully, Shane (Danny Flaherty), roams around with a couple toughs in tow. The first time we meet him, he spray-paints Jack’s face black, swearing that the next time it goes straight in his mouth. Then again, Jack did just vandalize Shane’s dad’s place that morning. Jack may not quite deserve the brutal treatment he receives, but he never seems to learn not to poke the hornet’s nest.
This sort of myopia isn’t unique to Jack. One of the girls who watches his humiliation, Harriet (Yainis Ynoa), offers to let him wash his face at her house nearby, then takes offense when he tells her to just leave him alone. But why would he take comfort from her, when just a few minutes earlier she’d been among the group ridiculing him over an intimate selfie that her friend Robyn (Scarlet Lizbeth) had asked him for in the first place.
Around and around it goes. Casual sadism — emotional for the girls; physical for the boys — is the accepted currency for the social market among these young teenagers. And Jack is not one of the success stories. It’s painful to watch him take all this punishment, but even more frustrating to see him keep bringing down more upon his own head. Only some bare glimmers of emerging conscience and compassion cut the bleak tone.
It’s all meticulously observed on Thompson’s part, and he avoids giving us easy, palatable narrative outs. By the time Shane is beating Jack half to death in front of a gathered crowd of their peers, everyone seems to realize that it’s all gone way too far. Obviously someone has to step out and stop it, and yet nobody does. They’ll drop Jack’s broken body at home afterwards, but won’t say boo to the authorities. Has Jack learned to quit before he gets in even more trouble, or is he wondering how he can get back this time?
As I said, King Jack can often an exercise in frustration, but never for any shortcoming in quality or talent. It’s just hard to watch kids being that self-involved and short-sighted, if only for the memories of when that was you.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.