If it’s not a rule of thumb, then it should be. When one is crafting a tale of inner city woe, much like Trevor White’s “Jamesy Boy,” it would serve the filmmaker not to evoke memories about one of the greatest tales of societal degradation: “The Wire.” Perhaps those actors that have appeared in HBO’s masterpiece of long form episodic narrative may never be able to shrug off the success of that series, but that also doesn’t exclude them from seeking work in other genres.
White’s “Jamesy Boy” chugs along with an overlong and turgid pace, when suddenly Robert F. Chew appears in almost the same exact capacity he was held in “The Wire.” However, it must be slightly off putting to only find that he’s been demoted from having a name to being designated the “Fat Ass Manager” as the credits suggest. This isn’t the only problem for “Jamesy Boy,” but its certainly the most telling.
“Jamesy Boy,” fundamentally, is an attempt at making the story of James Burns become a cautionary tale for troubled youth mixed with some sort of social commentary on the American prison system. Purported to be a true story, we’re also forced to put our trust and attention for 105 minutes in the hands of James Burns (Spencer Lofranco), then meant to feel every single minute like a 150 pound anvil placed solely on the audiences back.
The story of the film follows Burns as he struggles entering into a new life at school. He’s been convicted of weapon possession, forced to wear an ankle monitor and placed under the gentle, misguided stewardship of his mother, Tracy (Mary Louise Parker). One night at a seedy convenience store, James meets up with two thuggish individuals and one turn out to be a side girl of a drug distributor. James, who makes frequent claims about his ambition and smarts quite often, wants into the dangerous business when the girl proposes to introduce him and he eventually pushes his way into the gang, leading to a coming of age yarn in a downtrodden city.
White then switches to Burns’ incarceration in prison where James bides his time writing mediocre slam poetry. Tonally, “Jamesy Boy” has the pacing and construction of an afternoon special on ABC; built to ward off kids from the dangers of watching too much television and listening to copious amounts of rap music. This might be acceptable even for mind numbing entertainment if the main character wasn’t so much of a po faced jerk. In order to draw empathy even the hardest of characters, there should need to plenty of emotional displays leading to a change of heart. James shows none throughout the course of the film, in fact not until the very final seconds of the film does “Jamesy Boy” show that he’s learned anything. Even so, this is an uneasy bargain since its so sudden. The film is supposedly based on a true story, but the embellishments feel far too artificial.
Benevolent cops, benevolent prison inmates, kind strangers that turn to into benevolent love interests, everything in “Jamesy Boy” becomes a didactic exercise, yet James and Lofranco’s performance is as impenetrable as an iron anchor; deadened, slightly on the petulant side, utterly devoid of emotional resonance. White’s film has assembled a fairly pedigreed cast, along with Mary Louise Parker, James Woods appears as as a dour prison warden who believes to have control over his prison detail. Taissa Farmiga as an innocent school girl who shows the life James could have had if he’d treaded the path of the straight and narrow. Although the most humorous turn is from Black Eyed Pea Taboo as the hardened Guillermo who consistently delivers boom boom pow beatings to other inmates with a hair trigger sensibility.
Essentially, “Jamesy Boy” doesn’t need the kind of close reading that it might hope to inspire. The development and build up to James’s turn as a budding writer is anti-climactic. When the big reveal comes it’s laughable. It’s less poetry and more like an assemblage of idioms and aphorisms from the back of “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” White pushes parallels between James Burns and rapper Tupac Shakur, when in the end we find that they are hilariously unearned.
The kind of inimical degradation and problematic structures “Jamesy Boy” wishes to impart is ultimately not compelling in the slightest. After what seems like an intense opening seconds soon gives way to downright tedious scenes told a thousand times over; boy tempted by vice, boy enters vice wholeheartedly, boy learns that his vices are harmful, boy learns to live a life without vice.
On other matters, the photography is competent, lines are delivered with the subtly of a giraffe trying to recite “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and the disparate thematic sensibilities that White’s direction actually inspires never congele to something believable beyond the unbearable weight of its didactic tendencies. The James that White presents in prison, as opposed to the James living in the city, are essentially the same and unchanged by their experience in the end. The true story might not be this way, but the fiction presented and the sudden ill fitted redemption placed upon James during the course of the film makes becoming an entrenched supporter of this character very hard to do.