A dynamic performance by teen thesp Brendan Fletcher anchors “Jimmy Zip,” a peculiar but effective take on lost youth. Hampered only by a silly third act that dulls the keen edges that come before it, pic is otherwise full of genuine emotion. Though mainstream success seems unlikely — its general themes revolve around art and alchemy — other fests in the market for a well-acted look at life-gone-wrong will fare nicely with this “Oliver Twist”-like tryst, which copped the Hollywood Film Festival’s prize for best feature made for under $1 million.
In “Zip,” director-writer Robert McGinley brings a raw attitude to his fascination with pyromania. Concerned with the destructive and creative forces behind fire, McGinley, while not always grounded in reality, manages to home in on the friendship that sprouts among radically different individuals.
At home, abusive foster father (Ike Gingrich) has resorted to calling his son Jimmy Zip (as in “nothing”). With an extremely large chip on his shoulder and an even bigger firecracker, Jimmy vents his anger by blowing up the bathroom and heading for Hollywood, where, on his first night, he encounters a gang of fellow runaways, led by Sheila (Adrienne Frantz) and Snake (Zia).
Late in the evening, while learning how to wash windshields and panhandle, Jimmy hooks up with Rick Conesco (Chris Mulkey), a local drug dealer and pimp who offers him shelter and money in exchange for peddling small stashes.
On the way back from one of his pickups, Jimmy and his friends go to a junkyard and terrorize Horace Metcalf (Robert Gossett), a black craftsman who’s stricken with Tourette’s syndrome and lives in his car. After a scuffle, Horace grabs the boy’s jacket, only to find $20,000 of Rick’s money tucked inside.
Owning up to the costly mistake, Jimmy realizes that Rick wants to kill Horace. The boy then returns to the scrap metal haven out of panic, and the two form a camaraderie with mutual gains: Horace gets a sculpting partner with ties to much-needed cash, and Jimmy finds a mentor. Story’s sweet nature then heads south as Jimmy and Horace become involved with the gallery world and are forced to sell their work in order to repay Rick and save their lives.
There have been more than enough movies about troubled kids and their street smarts, but “Zip” benefits from its reliance on basic enthusiasm instead of seedy, prurient plotting stuffed with hustlers who’ll do anything to survive. And while there is a hooker-with-a-heart subplot and the bad guys seem to have come directly from a “Kojak” episode (“Lemme at ’em, boss!”), the overall approach feels unforced.
Fletcher is right-on as the clueless minor who musters up increasing confidence as his renegade existence unfurls; thesp possesses a live-wire unpredictability and resembles Brendan Sexton III, both physically and dramatically. He’s matched by a strong turn from Gossett, who, with his sympathetic voice and optimistic spirit, makes the most of his role as Jimmy’s makeshift guardian.
Where “Zip” stumbles is at the finish line. Its engaging charm is blindsided by an improbable trip into the cutthroat business arena where inventors and criminals intersect. It’s a noble venture, but one that belongs somewhere else, and another visit to the editing bay might help to maintain the emotion that develops during “Zip’s” best parts.
Adding to the production’s gritty composition but also calling attention to its budgetary limitations, tech credits are a bit rough, while Geoff Levin’s atmospheric score is standout.