Recently we’ve seen a number of outspoken voices on the internet espouse their undying love for pop culture artifacts from their childhood. It’s a fetishization of nostalgia that I believe is rooted in escapism. Youth is tenuous time for anybody. You have to deal with bullies, coming into sexual maturity with absolutely no clue how to interact with the opposite sex, and then there’s unyielding self-doubt in the ongoing search for yourself. Pop culture might give us a respite from those external forms of torment, and that’s what people are clinging to with such ferocity. King Jack, the feature length debut from writer-director Felix Thompson, doesn’t dive into escapism through pop culture, but focuses on the varied trials and tribulations of youth – with a real focus on the uglier side of growing up.
When we first see Jack (Charlie Plummer) he’s spray painting on a neighborhood garage, only to flee once he’s discovered by the home owner. What we’ll later discover is that Jack was tagging the garage door belonging to the father of Shane (Danny Flaherty), a local bully that torments Jack at every available opportunity. At home, Jack has to contend with his older brother Tom (Christian Madsen), who seems to enjoy tormenting his younger brother, as well as his mother Karen (Erin Davie), who struggles to keep her home in order with the demands of raising children and work. When Jack’s aunt has some health issues, his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) comes to stay with him, though Jack doesn’t have much interest in spending time with his younger cousin. Though the two do bond over a game of truth or dare with Holly (Chloe Levine) and Harriet (Yainis Ynoa), their relationship is soon fractured when the cruel bullying of Shane violently divides them.
Thompson has written Jack as a sort of prototypical malcontent teenager. He’s guarded with his feelings, fearing that any form of self-expression might leave him open for mockery. Young Charlie Plummer perfectly encapsulates these varied emotions with a remarkably strong performance. At one point, Jack sends a shirtless photo of himself to the young girl he has a crush on. She then requests that he sends a picture of his lower half exposed, and he obliges only to have the photo presented to the other girls leaving his relentlessly mocked. It’s the perfect moment to present the undermining his confidence – not that he should sending pictures of his junk – in that the one moment he lets his guarded persona down it backfires in the worst possible way.
More than anything, it’s the looming threat of violence from Shane that drives King Jack. Shane is a character that many of us have encountered in our youth, a perpetual bully that needs little reason to explode in a rage of physical violence. When Shane’s brutality places both Jack and Ben in his targets, it causes a divide between the two – forcing Jack to choose between bravery and cowardice. No matter what he does, Jack will always be the object of Shane’s scorn. It’s a no-win scenario, and that realization is what Jack has to overcome in order to move forward with his life. Those acts of violence and torment that Jack and Ben are subjected to are truly harrowing to watch, as the unstable Shane is established as being ugly and unpredictable with his outbursts of physical violence.
Running at a brisk 80 minutes, King Jack fills its story with all the fraught moments of youth. That unease of being uncertain of yourself is encapsulated in its young lead, as he’s forced to contend with the scary aspects of the constant threat of physical violence and lacking self-confidence in the face of the opposite sex. Felix Thompson and his cast are able to find a real grace in these moments of ugliness and uncertainty. King Jack is the kind of work filled with intelligence and emotional honesty that can only come about when one is free from the fetishization of nostalgia.
The debut feature from writer-director Felix Thompson, King Jack is a charming, harrowing coming-of-age tale about contending with bullies and the opposite sex.