An Audience Award Winner at Tribeca, King Jack is an Absolute Triumph
King Jack, which just won the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award for Narrative Features, harkens back to the early work of David Gordon Green and presents a scathing indictment against small town America and the kids who live there. It is a stunning debut for Felix Thompson who has crafted a razor sharp shape-shifter that starts off as a lazy look at a family in transition only to eventually become something that flirts with becoming a horror flick. The story finds the titular Jack (Charlie Plummer), a 15-year old kid in upstate New York who spends his days pissing off the local bullies and sending ill-advised dick pics to the local chapter of mean girls. There is a mother and brother in the picture though neither seem to invest much time in him and money also seems to be scarce but these dynamics are not what Thompson chooses to focus on. Instead there is a lot more fun to be had from stripping away the tired rhetoric about the innocence of youth to show what your little angels are really up to these days.
The plot gets cooking with the arrival of Ben (Cory Nichols), cousin of Jack, who has to shack up with his extended family after his mom has a mental break. He shows up with a doughboy build and a Llyod Christmas haircut reeking of naiveté and thus pathetically unprepared for what awaits him. At first Jack is ashamed of him (not totally without warrant) and lectures him constantly on how best to remain unseen in social situations. Despite having him junk examined and voted down by her Jack is in hot pursuit of Robyn and he has no intentions of letting Ben cockblock his progress. His problems are much bigger than his little cousin though as he is also on the radar of Shane (Danny Flaherty), town heavy, and his two stooges after tagging his house with an especially vulgar slur. One thing leads to another which leads to Jack bouncing a rock off of the side of Shane’s head which sets the movie down a fairly dark path. These are not the kids we watched in The Breakfast Club, instead we are in the presence of little demons who are more than ready to engage in some casual torture just to make a larger point.
Right around this, the half way point, everything starts to feel like an extended chase in a Wes Craven movie. Jack and Ben are on the run from some bad eggs that seemingly will kill them if they catch them. They run and hide and fight but they are up against competition that is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than them. When they find the perfect hideout Shane and Co. still know where to look. They also have lieutenants station where you’d least expect them and when they strike their bite is shockingly venomous. Our heroes do find time to play a little truth or dare with some female friends who are willing to lend a helping hand. The scene is pitch perfect and sure to cause nostalgia to swell in anyone who longs for the freedom and messiness of youth. It is also sweet enough that it allows the audience, and the characters presumably, to forget for a few seconds about the sociopaths who are out scouring the neighborhood looking for them.
Whether it was an active creative choice or not it is worth mentioning that for all of the illegal activities happening in this small town law enforcement is virtually non-existent. Only at the very end, once the proceedings have become downright homicidal, does John Law show up but he is quickly vanquished with nothing more than a wall of silence. People are beaten and injured and just about every law imaginable is broken… but nobody gets so much as a parking ticket. Considering the overtly militaristic tactics of our police and the ridiculous incarceration rate in this country Thompson may be reminding us that sometimes these things just figure themselves out without people having to write checks to the government.
Subtext aside I hope Thompson realizes the masterpiece that he has on his hands and that it gets the distribution it deserves. Winning the audience award should help it out in that department and if nothing else it can look forward to a long life on a streaming service somewhere. If I wanted to I could dock points for a lack of subtlety, the baddies are too bad and the sugary stuff is a little too sticky. But it all plays into greater emotional truths that he is able to present here about what it means to be young in America right now. Chocolate factories and wizard boarding schools are fun but this film is something that we can all relate to in one way or another. Jack has terrible judgment and pays for it dearly but watching his character continually screw up is far more fascinating than the usual extraordinary child with abilities beyond our imagination alternative. King Jack is a severe thriller that has the courage to look us in the eye and tell us how things really are out there not how we wish they were.
Tags: Charlie Plummer, Cory Nichols, Danny Flaherty, Felix Thompson