Jamesy Boy arrives without much fanfare or heraldry to a very limited theatrical release today, and while it’s understandable why this picture didn’t end up with a bigger theatrical push, in a certain sense that’s a little too bad. This is the feature debut of director and co-writer Trevor White, rewarded for a series of short with a worthwhile narrative based on an inspirational true story and a cast that includes some marginal Hollywood star power in Mary Louise Parker, James Woods, Ving Rhames, and Taissa Farmiga. The result isn’t a feature debut that’s going to blow anyone away, or indeed one in which the successes quite outweigh the faults, but it’s a refreshingly earnest effort that desperately believes in the necessity of telling its story to the masses.
The story, as mentioned, is based on the life of James Burns (played by Spencer Lofranco), a burnout teen who’s been in and out of trouble since he was little. And I mean serious trouble – when we meet James, he’s already a hardened inmate despite his baby face. We soon flash back several years where James is wearing an ankle tracker (a term of his recent parole), and his single mother (Mary Louise Parker) is desperately trying to get him enrolled in a school that doesn’t want to take the violent James. This is the main artistic feature of the narrative – jumping back and forth over a span of three years between the James in jail and the James clearly on his way there – and the film actually handles this very well. At several points, the film plays with the audience’s expectations based on something James has said or done in one of the timelines, but I never feels as though the picture was trying to get one over on me. There’s no big “Gotcha!” moment; rather, the structure allows the movie to reinforce many of the struggles James is dealing with, especially the thematic sense James never seems to be able to escape many of his demons, due in large part to others’ expectations for him.
The biggest success of the movie is that James always feels like he’s developing in each timeline, but that the character remains cohesive across both. Jamesy Boy is very much one kid’s repeated struggle to graduate from childhood into adulthood, and the movie does a great job of highlighting how much James is caught in between not only these two worlds, but also between the constructive and destructive versions of adulthood which are demonstrated for him. But this is no black and white world; every character has virtues and vices, some just exhibit more of one or the other. James is trying to figure out what part of that spectrum he’s capable of occupying. The pre-jail James confronts this in terms of whether he’s able to become an adult at all, regardless of where this positions him, whereas the older James is beginning to become an authority figure in the jailyard and must decide how to use that power. The two are so closely related, but the two timelines to a good job of building off one another rather than repeating themselves.
That said, the actual nuts and bolts of getting this done are pretty rough. The performances are workable, but it’s more that they do limited harm to the story than enhance it. Lofranco as James is, unfortunately, probably the worst of the main cast. He noticeably struggles to find any sort of chemistry with his co-stars, especially Parker and Woods, both of whom seem to run up against character limitations imposed by the script itself. Part of these performance issues may stem from the fact that all of the characters, not to mention the plot, seem a little too archetypically bound for their own good. I never could shake the notion that I’d seen this this movie before. There’s the boy who keeps getting roped in by the allure of criminal gain, the bad girl who pulls him in, the good girl who drives him to reform, the gangster kingpin, the cruel prison guards, the contentious inmate, the passive inmate everyone knows not to mess with. I half felt like I was watching an inferior version of The Shawshank Redemption, and this can’t be excused by the mere fact that this is based on the real experiences of an actual person. Rhames actually does the best in breaking this mold. He’s cast as a reserved, literarily inclined life-sentence inmate who reluctantly mentors James. He spends most of the movie pretty much toeing the line of the magical negro archetype, but there’s a scene near the end of the movie that sufficiently breaks this mold, at least as compared to most of the characters.
A number of these issues are at least partially rooted in White’s direction, but it’s the camera that ends up being his biggest betrayer. Jamesy Boy is best described as a narrative which has been documented; there’s a lack of assuredness when it comes to the how the camera is positioned. That’s not to say there aren’t some decent shots here and there, but by and large the photography isn’t adding anything to the story, and in a narrative that deals so heavily with James’s internal struggles, this is a problem. Returning to the portrayal of James’s character, we can recognize that there are demons James must excise, but there’s little connection between his actions and the way they actually move him along his character arc. The arc itself remains recognizable, but the internal motivation is obscure. There is a subplot, for example, that deals with how James copes with his life through writing poetry. This idea is beautifully underplayed when first introduced, and there’s no issue in believing that writing is important to James, but what’s missing is an exploration of how that grants him catharsis. James’s story is meant as both an exploration of human resolve and, especially, a look at positive versus negative methods of self-expression, but the movie has little to add to that conversation. It doesn’t say why these things are important, only that they are.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
I loved how earnest this movie is in pursuing its story. It’s abundantly clear that it believes it’s sitting on something significant and wants desperately to tell the world about the difficulty kids labeled as “problem children” have in transitioning out of a juvenile rebelliousness and into adulthood. The result is a very raw film that manages to be surprisingly engaging emotionally despite being pretty severely handicapped by a number of very present flaws in execution. But earnestness alone can’t carry a movie, so this ends up being a fairly empty pic that merely points at issues without making especially meaningful contributions in their discussion.