No unfamiliar ground is trodden in “King Jack,” a summer-haze study of adolescent anomie punctuated with blunt bouts of violence, but Felix Thompson’s debut feature covers it with an assured stride all the same. Gaining a degree of topicality from its hard depiction of teen-on-teen bullying, this gleamingly lensed tale of a 15-year-old scrapper taught a tough lesson in selflessness over a single weekend in the Hudson Valley bears the whispery influence of such American mood merchants as David Gordon Green and David Robert Mitchell. Still, Thompson demonstrates enough visual and verbal ingenuity to make this appealing miniature — an audience-award winner at the Tribeca fest in April — both a viable arthouse play and a harbinger of more ambitious things to come from its writer-helmer.
If the initial outward trappings of Thompson’s filmmaking — the peachy midsummer glow permeating the frame, the dulcet acoustic scoring — portend a certain preciousness, the film’s portrayal of modern adolescence is hardly romanticized. The kids in “King Jack” bristle with uncontained inclinations toward violence and cruel manipulation of sexuality; any parents blissfully unaware of teen “sexting” conventions may get a rude awakening here. The eponymous protagonist (Charlie Plummer, best known for his recurring role in TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is first shown defacing a schoolmate’s family home with obscene graffiti that goes a little beyond boys-will-be-boys prankery. Auds may assume from this that he’s an aggressive delinquent, though it’s not long before Jack’s more vulnerable position in his neighborhood’s hooligan hierarchy is established.
As it turns out, Jack is pretty harshly browbeaten from all sides. He rarely comes out on top in his ongoing feud with Shane (Danny Flaherty), a dimmer but more physically domineering young thug, while his home life is blighted by a fractious, occasionally abusive relationship with his grown-up brother Tom (Christian Madsen, the spitting-image son of Michael). His loving but over-burdened single mother, Karen (an excellent Erin Davie), is too weary to mend family bridges, allowing Tom to assume default alpha status in the absence of her sons’ father; positive figures of adult authority are in short supply in Thompson’s chosen corner of working-class America.
Another child cast adrift in this environment of prevailing instability is Jack’s younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols), a pudgy introvert sent to stay with the family while his mother recovers from a mental breakdown. An obvious target for idle bullies, Ben is given a less-than-effusive welcome by Jack, who already has his hands full protecting himself from Shane and his cronies; over the course of a humid afternoon, the boys tentatively bond before a run-in with Jack’s tormentors turns vicious. Further complicating matters for our virginal hero is hormonal turmoil: As he falls for the taunting come-ons of his sexually precocious dream girl, Robyn (Scarlet Lizbeth), he’s slower to pick up on the more sincerely affectionate signals given by kindly, modest Harriet (Yainis Ynoa).
There are few surprising developments, either of narrative or of characterization, in a story that demarcates its good kids, bad kids and rough diamonds fairly early on, before linking them all with a common streak of naivete. But Thompson and his appealing young cast enliven the material with authentic, ingenuous feeling; there’s a palpable understanding here of the substantial difficulties involved in growing up under any circumstances, and Thompson’s script never condescends to its teen subjects with dewy-eyed nostalgia for youth. Plummer, whose angular, unfazed features evoke a younger Dane DeHaan, is a bright, bracing lead: Spikily resourceful but never smart-alecky, he’s unconcerned with making Jake overtly likable, instead bringing the audience round as he gradually exposes the character’s limited arsenal of defenses.
D.p. Brandon Roots is as sensitively attuned to the characters as Thompson, framing and lighting them with tender awareness of their contrasting perspectives and projected inner worlds. When the camera gives in to woozy, magic-hour beauty, the technique feels emotionally prompted, not merely decorative. Other tech credits are similarly polished, though Bryan Senti’s pretty, guitar-led score is occasionally a little more mollifying than it needs to be.