Home Video Hovel: Jamesy Boy, by Craig Schroeder
Jamesy Boy, the first feature film from director Trevor White, is the true story of a a young delinquent named James Burns, played by relative newcomer Spencer Lofranco. The film takes place over two concurrent timelines: one, while James is incarcerated; and the other, three years prior, when James is a precocious fourteen year old beginning a life of crime that will ultimately land him in prison. Writers Trevor White and Lane Shagdett are not, to my knowledge, mixed-martial arts fighters, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were. All of the dialogue and plot-points of the film have the nuance and subtlety of a UFC champion’s victory speech (“I’d rather die young, than coast through life without stepping up”). The stakes of the film are only heightened through superficial displays of masculinity, as if the only kind of interesting conflict is physical confrontation. Not to mention, like a bad improv player, every tense scene is “enhanced” by someone pulling out a gun or a knife.
James is, for lack of a better word, a little shit. The movie informs us he’s under house arrest for getting into fights and not listening to his mother. He’s fourteen. He deals drugs. He brings home guns. He robs people. He shoots at people. He is, in fact, a little shit. Yet the movie portrays him only as a victim of circumstance. The movie apologizes for James’s behavior, usually by pinning it on someone else. James would have never robbed that store if it wasn’t for an unfortunate coincidence. He didn’t want to have to shoot at anyone, but he was forced to by another gang-banger. He fights because he has to stand up for injustice that someone else is perpetuating. The film knows James is a bad kid, but it can also explain all of his bad decisions by blaming someone else, thus, rendering James Burns an impotent, boring character. And the person(s) being blamed for James’ foibles are always some trite stereotype of a minority criminal. James, a lily-white teenager, is constantly being persuaded to do awful things by non-white people. Given what we know about the increasingly unjust incarceration rate of non-white men in America, Jamesy Boy is quite tone-deaf in its repeated attempts to shift the blame for James’ actions onto peripheral minority characters; excusing the actions of the white protagonist while demonizing his non-white counterparts. At one point, James’ involvement in a robbery is justified, if not excused, by two minority characters who, quite literally, stuff James’ unwitting arms with stolen goods.
For such a poor film, Jamesy Boy has a rather prestigious cast; unfortunately, they are all playing different versions of characters we already know. Ving Rhames is Conrad, an older incarnation of Marcellus Wallace, a mentor figure to James who is constantly threatening to beat the shit out of him (oh, and Conrad is always reading a Rio de Janeiro travel guide, a choice so strange I have to assume the prop master forgot to bring an appropriate book to set and they just went with what was lying around). James Woods treads familiar territory, playing an unsympathetic hard-ass prison guard, who has some good inside him trying to get out. Mary-Louise Parker is James’ distraught mother and after the first thirty minutes is little more than shallow background. And poor Robert F. Chew (Proposition Joe from The Wire) has one scene, basically playing Prop Joe in a different universe, but is referred to only as “Fat Ass Manager” in the end credits. If there is a silver lining to be found, Taissa Farmiga, who has been doing great work on American Horror Story, offers a decent performance as Sarah, the good girl who keeps James grounded. But the most interesting performance comes from Taboo, otherwise known as the fourth banana in the hip-hop quartet The Black Eyed Peas. Taboo plays a Mexican gangster, inmate and adversary to James. He isn’t great, but in a movie that drags on and on, I’m more than happy to be mildly entertained by Taboo chewing up all the scenery.
The only compliment I can give Jamesy Boy is that it does seem well-intentioned. I’m sure the real-life James Burns has a compelling story, but this is not that story. Jamesy Boy is a mish-mash of mixed messages and ill-informed social commentary, all filtered through naivete and total unawareness, which makes for a coming-of-age-story that is as tone deaf as it is ineffective.