Confidently working a well-worn groove, Felix Thompson’s debut joins a growing cannon of derelict rite-of-passage films in which American adolescents ride their bikes around dilapidated areas of the U.S. (this time in New York’s Hudson Valley). Neither as meditative as Hide Your Smiling Faces nor as morose as Little Accidents, King Jack also can’t boast Mud’s wistful poeticisms of innocence lost, but its summer of embattled youth is shorn of sentimentality, with lead actor Charlie Plummer’s embittered eye lines casting a pall of diminished self-worth over his fresh features.
Semi-delinquent Jack’s endless summer is an unbearable constant of humiliation and romantic rejection, his sullen interior hopelessness manifest in a shabby neighborhood of overgrown yards and the distant sound of rusted rail trains headed anywhere but here. First seen spray-painting an angry expletive on the garage door of the bully hounding him, Jack gets the rest of his aggression out through push-ups and post-workout selfies shot on a flip phone—one of the less obvious blue-collar details authenticating King Jack’s socioeconomic setting.
The pictures are sent to a popular girl, Karin (Scarlet Lizbeth), who, like everyone else at school, refers to Jack as “Scab,” a nickname that’s stuck around since childhood and given to him by his older brother, Tom (Christian Madsen), who’s jealous of the royal treatment Jack received from their now absent father. Their single mother, Karen (Erin Davie), is hardly ever around as it is, and so the responsibility of looking after his younger, even more pensive cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), falls to Jack when his aunt is taken sick.
Jack’s crown having long since slipped, his victimhood initially finds its outlet in “schizo” Ben, who he orders about in the same curt, though not half-as-cruel, manner of his own abusers. It’s in these early interactions of forced friendship that Thompson astutely sketches the repeated behavioral patterns of the evil others do; it’s an admirably underplayed theme that runs through several scenarios in a way that speaks to both Jack’s internal growing pains and the universal experience of high school Darwinism and the perceived pecking order of easy targets and targets easier still.
When Ben eventually proves himself worthy of Jack’s company through superior baseball skills and his dorky ease with women, the tough-guy act that’s not fooling anyone soon turns tender, with “Scab” and “Schizo” united by a common foe, in Shane (Danny Flaherty), and his sycophantic sidekicks. Their cat-and-mouse games play like a tougher run-around of the school’s-out chases form Dazed and Confused, but if Shane is ostensibly a variation on Ben Affleck’s seething O’Bannion, once Tom puts himself in the middle of this feud, the echo to the Linklater film is even more resonant, for Christian Madsen, son of Michael, is the spitting image of a young Affleck.
Harsh punishments are dished out in a way that jolts the material away from coming-of-age cliché, making the rays of Brandon Roots’s magic-hour photography seem a little bit chillier, and even if the teen-on-teen violence is the most unpleasant sort of casual cruelty since those early scenes from The Butterfly Effect that’s still preferable to yet another lyrical depiction of small-town life deoxygenated by overwrought mood.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 7—18.