An episodic character drama about a wayward teenage boy who perilously embraced a life of crime before narrowly coming out the other side, "Jamesy Boy" unloads a true-life tale that has become far too commonplace in the real world. This fact also elevates the material, with debuting writer-director Trevor White and co-writer Lane Shadgett providing a tough, involving treatment that avoids feeling like a Lifetime movie. Seguing between two time periodsafter his arrest at the age of 15, and what ultimately led to itthey present a full, frustrating but sympathetic portrait of a troubled youth.
Raised by single mother Tracy (Mary-Louise Parker) in a lower-middle class section of Baltimore, James Burns (Spencer Lofranco) is only fourteen years old and already has gotten into so many scuffles with the lawrobbery, vandalism, assaultthat the public school system is reluctant to accept him. Frustrated by the series of doors slammed in his face and angry about the ankle bracelet he is court-ordered to wear, James rebels, moving out of his house and falling in with a drug-dealing gang led by Roc (Michael Trotter). Three years later, James is in prison on a weapons possession charge, stuck between writing aspirations and keeping his temper in check and giving up completely, yet another victim of the system. It is his unlikely sort-of friendship with a hardened fellow inmate, five-time murderer Conrad (Ving Rhames), that finally sets him on a path toward personal redemption.
"Jamesy Boy" can never quite break free from its routine plot trajectory, but it certainly helps that director Trevor White so obviously cares about his characters. Spencer Lofranco (also appearing in 2014's "At Middleton
" with co-star Taissa Farmiga) gives a performance worth being proud out, all the more so for it being his first film. In every scene, Lofranco is believable as the rebellious, unhappy James, attracted to the thug lifestyle when no other options appear to be viable and sacrificing the people who care about him along the way. The whole ensemble is rock-solid, among them Mary-Louise Parker (2013's "Red 2
") as James' supportive mother, Tracy; Taissa Farmiga (2013's "The Bling Ring
") as the hardworking Sarah, whom James takes a liking to; James Woods (2013's "White House Down
") as head prison guard Lt. Falton, and Rosa Salazar as wild-child Crystal, bringing layers of unspoken shame to a girl who has long given herself over to drugs and sexual exploitation. The soundtrack is more soulful than one expects to find in this genre as well, rap and hip-hop standing off to the side to make way for a more ruminative folksy, indie-rock vibe. Where "Jamesy Boy" is headed is not exactly surprising, but the film has been tackled with a sense of thoughtfulness and compassion that makes the would-be garden-variety narrative worthwhile.