Rich detail and strong performances do battle with coming-of-age clichés in King Jack, an indie drama that winds up feeling overly beholden to the dictates of various screenwriting manuals. That’s not something you’d necessarily guess right off the bat, as the film opens with Jack (Charlie Plummer), its teen protagonist, spray-painting the word “cunt” in gigantic letters across an unknown person’s garage door. This ugly act of vandalism gains some context when it’s revealed that Jack—a lanky, insecure kid whose unwanted nickname is Scab—regularly gets viciously bullied by a group of older teens, led by an especially aggressive sadist named Shane (Danny Flaherty). Complications ensue when Jack’s 12-year-old cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), comes to visit for a while after Ben’s mom experiences some sort of mental breakdown. Asked to look after Ben, Jack instead winds up using him in the manner of that old joke about two men fleeing a charging grizzly: “I don’t have to run faster than the bear; I just have to run faster than you.”
That’s a reasonably fresh premise for a high-school movie, and first-time writer-director Felix Thompson demonstrates good instincts for two of King Jack’s standard three acts. While the movie’s setting is never specified—upstate New York somewhere, looks like—its suburban milieu feels specific and lived in, lagging just a little behind the times. (There are cell phones and text messages, but otherwise the year could be 1995.) And the young cast is excellent across the board. Plummer manages a tricky balance with Jack, making the character selfish and sullen while simultaneously suggesting that those qualities have largely been beaten into him—by not just Shane and friends but also his much older brother, Tom (Christian Madsen, who has exactly the same sleepy-scary countenance as his father, Michael Madsen). Nichols, previously excellent in last year’s The Mend, captures the painful awkwardness of being an unwanted guest, then blossoms over the course of a truth-or-dare game with Ben and a couple of girls (Yainis Ynoa and Chloe Levine). Even Flaherty, best known as Stan Beeman’s son on The Americans, does fine work—as written, Shane is a one-dimensional asshole, but the fear underlying that bleeds through.
Ultimately, however, the actors are at the mercy of Thompson’s plot, which requires Jack to redeem himself in mechanical, tiresome fashion. The film’s title gets explained in a lengthy character-defining monologue, which then receives an obligatory cutesy echo in the final scene. A threat that leads to a lapse in courage during act two gets duly repeated in act three, so that Jack can do the right thing this time, at great personal cost. After an hour of low-key naturalism, King Jack becomes the kind of movie in which Tom states the key dramatic question aloud for the audience’s benefit, asking Jack, “When was the last time you did somethin’ for somebody else?” (The predictable answer: Ten minutes from now!) Still, these are standard rookie mistakes, and there’s no reason to think that Thompson can’t learn from them. His good instincts matter much more.