Despite the casting of veteran actors Mary-Louise Parker, Ving Rhames, and James Woods, Jamesy Boy is really a showcase for budding talent, which is something I’ve always appreciated. We have director/co-writer Trevor White, producer Tim White (Trevor’s brother), and star Spencer Lofranco, all making their feature-length debuts. The film isn’t perfect; it tells a story that, while true, is nevertheless one we’ve heard many times before, namely that of an inner city kid who had a rough childhood, got in with the wrong crowd, and ended up serving time in prison before deciding to turn his life around upon release. Having said that, it was clear to me that these newbies knew how to make a movie, and I have no doubt that gaining more showbiz experience will be reflected in their future films.
The film dramatizes the teenage years of James Burns, whose family had known the Whites in their native Annapolis. During that period of his life, Burns served several years in a Colorado prison for armed robbery. To what extent his story has been dramatized, I haven’t been able to determine. However, Burns serves as one of the producers, and according to an interview with Chris Kaltenbach of The Baltimore Sun, he agreed to sell Trevor White the rights to his life story after reuniting with him in Los Angeles, and would subsequently be on set during most of the shoot. So either the film is remarkable faithful to Burns’ life, or he approved of the dramatic licenses taken by White and his co-writer Lane Shadgett. Whatever the case, we have a competent movie with decent performances and an inspirational message.
Structurally, it alternates in time between Burns’ life behind bars and the events that led up to his arrest three years prior. During both periods, Burns is portrayed by Lofranco with a convincing streetwise edge. As a fourteen-year-old troubled youth from the wrong side of the tracks, we see the ways in which being labeled a bad kid becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because of his criminal record, stemming from anger issues going back to the age of six, he cannot be enrolled into traditional school systems, and even then, all alternatives seem to regard him with suspicion and doubt. Why, then, should be bother trying to get an education, or making something of himself at all? He repeatedly tests the patience of his mother (Parker), a single woman who isn’t perfect and has a background of her own but is clearly doing the best she can.
Burns eventually ingratiates himself with, Roc (Michael Trotter), a local gangster with a ruthless disposition, and Roc’s girlfriend, Crystal (Rosa Salazar), a young woman who has conditioned herself to believe she doesn’t deserve any better than what she gets from lowlifes with guns. Although Burns has earned Roc’s trust, we in the audience know his newfound sense of purpose and belonging is hopelessly misguided. He doesn’t begin to realize this until he befriends a girl named Sarah (Taissa Farmiga), who works at a liquor store run by her father. She too has a backstory, but she also knows that she has to make the most of the hand life has dealt her. Burns has fantasies of running away with Sarah and starting a new life. Unfortunately, he still has ties to Roc, and when a robbery goes wrong, Burns has no choice but to try and fix it.
The prison scenes show that much of what Burns learned on the streets still applies. Turf wars between rival gangs rage on, and the only way to earn respect – or, at the very least, to not be trifled with – is to not reveal your weaknesses. He’s forced to reconsider his reputation for getting into fights when he befriends a new inmate named Chris (Ben Rosenfield), who, despite having committed a crime, is clearly too sensitive for the realities of prison. This involves Lieutenant Falton (Woods), a tough-talking security guard who comes off as a heartless bastard but in reality has simply seen and heard too much. At the same time, Burns gains a mentor of sorts out of a hardened criminal named Conrad (Rhames), who spends his days distracting himself by reading a Rio de Janeiro travel guide. It’s at this point that Burns returns to his poetry writing, which was a dirty little secret when he was still a street thug.
In spite of the persistent use of four-letter dialogue, the film is at times rather innocent in the way it spells everything out. A more compelling film would refrain from unnecessary dialogue, and certain scenes would rely more on action and character development to get its point across. But the characters of Jamesy Boy are made to state the obvious, and as a result, much of the film comes off as overly simplistic, as if the intention was to aim it at squarely at younger audiences in need of guidance. Having said that, everyone involved clearly had their hearts in the right place, and the seriousness with which White and Lofranco take their art is evident. For the two of them, I see nothing but bright futures. For the seasoned professionals, I get the sense that they were proud to take part in it, for it tells the story of a man who refused to let himself become another statistic.
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Phase 4 Films