Ahead of its release this summer, King Jack has already been racking up awards wins. And for good reason – the movie is surprisingly great. The film not only received the narrative audience award at Tribeca Film Festival, but director Felix Thompson won the “Someone to Watch” award at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year.
This second award is especially ironic considering the content of the movie Thompson won it for. King Jack features a boy named… well, Jack (Charlie Plummer) who is in desperate need of a mentor. Jack is 15 years old and living in Smalltown USA, where he finds himself in imminent danger of both summer school and an older bully. However, instead of getting someone to look after him, he must look after his younger cousin when his aunt goes ill.
One of the movie’s strongest features is its critical analysis of toxic masculinity in America. Jack is in high school and he is tiny. He does push ups and flexes in the mirror, but he’s still incredibly small. With the exception of his younger cousin, Jack is the smallest man shown on screen. He is constantly pushed around by those near him and constantly feels emasculated. As a result, Jack has one singular view of what it means to be a man, and this sometimes causes him to act in self-destructive ways.
That’s what makes the addition of Jack’s younger cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), so interesting. The characters are all defined by how they interact with those around them, and there are distinct power dynamics at play within each relationship that not only create fascinating interactions, but a clear hierarchy. Up until the addition of Ben, Jack is at the bottom of the pyramid and absolutely resents it, considering the title of the film. Jack’s actions after Ben comes in the picture are transformative and give the movie a bit of a drive.
Ben is also probably the wisest character in the film. He’s at the bottom of the pecking order but seems to know it. Going through his own form of grief and trauma, Ben doesn’t deal with it by trying to assert or prove himself. He is very quiet, but very good at reading social situations. His character is a bit of a plot device, but is also incredibly well developed, so that’s okay.
The power dynamics inherent within the movie are also what make the characters likable… and unlikable. The antagonists of the film are not detestable because they act out – so does the main character – but because they assert their dominance by attacking those who are weaker than they are. It’s not as though cinema really needs another coming-of-age story about a young boy, but at least this one has a strong moral compass and message.
Another success of King Jack is the fantastic world-building it does. The small town the characters live in is generic yet instantly recognizable, creating the perfect landscape for the general sense of angst contained within the movie. The film also does a fantastic job of depicting what it’s like being an early high school student. There’s an impulse for exploration, yet ample room for small regrets that seem huge. It’s relatable and sincere.
Clocking in at about 80 minutes, King Jack is short yet powerful. The plotline seems complete, and yet there is a strong desire to stay in the world of the characters for at least a little while longer. It’s an eventful two days that the movie presents, and the film feels like it is running at the perfect length. Despite making a movie about a kid who feels out of control, the filmmakers could not be more in control. The cinematic decisions made are smart, clear and effective. It makes sense why Felix Thompson won the “Someone to Watch” award: his future looks incredibly bright.