The core story of Jamesy Boy—street thug youth gets involved with gangs and drugs, but turns his life around in prison through writing poetry and a friendship with a longtime inmate—is a familiar one. Based on a true story of James Burns; a former thug-turned-filmmaker, his broken home and a circle of streetwise friends has already earned a tracking device on his ankle and a rap sheet that includes vandalism, robbery, assault and possession of a firearm.
No longer allowed to attend public school, James (Spencer Lofranco) pays no attention to the concerns of his single mother, Tracy (Mary-Louise Parker). Convinced by an associate named Crystal (Rosa Salazar), he slits the monitor from his ankle and takes a job working for Roc (Michael Trotter) a local drug dealer. James feels a sense of acceptance and family; before long, he’s working his way up the gang chain. At just fourteen, sex, drugs, and cash are all available to him.
James apparently realizes something is missing from his life, and becomes attracted to local girl Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) who works at her father’s convenience store. Wise beyond her years, Sarah isn’t scared by James, convinced there’s a decent guy beneath the tough exterior. As James spends more time away from Roc’s crew, he begins to think better of himself. Crystal grows jealous, arguments erupt; scores go wrong; inevitably, arrests are made.
James finds himself in jail. There he clashes with the leader of a Latino gang, Guillermo (Taboo), in defense of another new arrival sentenced for a non-violent crime named Chris (Ben Rosenfield). James efforts to defend Chris also incur the wrath of Lt. Falton (James Woods), the man in charge of the cell block. Just when it looks like James is going to fight his way through his sentence, he makes the acquaintance of quiet, world weary lifer Conrad (Ving Rhames) who teaches the young man that inner strength can be far more powerful than physical strength.
Jamesy Boy cuts back and forth between his jail time and the events that led up to it. This kind of approach works when there’s a surprise or a big event to reveal, but since that’s not the case here, it feels unnecessary. The film might have been stronger had it been told chronologically, allowing us to follow James from the beginning of his story arc to the end. It doesn’t help that director Trevor White has thrown subtlety out the window, choosing instead to play every seen in a melodramatic, heavy-handed way.
Nevertheless, Jamesy Boy does have some solid performances. Newcomer Spencer Lofranco does a fairly convincing job of capturing the F-you attitude that gets James into all kinds of trouble. James Woods and Ving Rhames are particularly strong, serving as a kind of in-your-face mirror for James. They force him to reflect on the people hid crimes have hurt along the way—the victims, his family, and friends. Unfortunately, the messy presentation of Jamesy Boy largely dilutes what might have been a powerful story of redemption.
Shot with the Arri Alexa by cinematographer Robert Lam, this 2.39:1, 1080p presentation accurately reflects its digital origins. Images are sharp, details are crisp, and noise is a non-issue. The prison scenes have an appropriately gray, sterile look throughout. Outside scenes have a rather nondescript look, but since most of these involve James with his gang, it looks appropriate.
Two audio tracks are available, English and French, both in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound mix here isn’t particularly complicated, but it works since this is a dialogue heavy film. Dialogue is clear throughout, and ambient sounds come through well. The bass heavy soundtrack even offers a little ‘thump’ to the proceedings.
No subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Director’s Commentary: Trevor White applauds his actors, and the logistics of shooting key scenes and performances. White also discusses James Burns’s career subsequent to his release from prison.
- Interviews (HD) Interviews with the key actors listed below about their characters, and how they approached the role.
- James Woods (7:33)
- Mary-Louise Parker (3:27)
- Ving Rhames (1:15)
- Spencer Lofranco (1:57)
- Taissa Farmiga (2:43)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:37).