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Film Review: Jamesy Boy

Locally filmed crime drama aims for gritty realism but rings hollow

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Spencer Lofranco in Jamesy Boy, a prison drama

Jamesy Boy

Directed by Trevor White

Opens Jan. 17 at the Eastpoint 10 theater

For better or for worse, The Wire gave Baltimore an indelible legacy, one rich with drugs and violence—frightening stuff that prompts out-of-towners to ask if life here really resembles that of David Simon’s drama. The other side of that coin, however, is more positive: Those who love the show love it for its detailed characters, and Baltimore claims them as well—all sorts of people, all with vivid personalities and varied backstories.

Given this legacy, it’s not surprising that Jamesy Boy, a prison drama directed by Annapolis native Trevor White, was filmed in Baltimore, though it’s not specifically set here. The movie assembles a cast with marquee names—Mary-Louise Parker, James Woods, Ving Rhames—and with a where-are-they-now assortment of Wire alumni—Maria Broom (Marla Daniels), Tray Chaney (Poot), Anwan Glover (Slim Charles), and the late Robert F. Chew (Prop Joe). Newcomer Spencer Lofranco (who looks like Matt Damon Lite) plays protagonist James Burns, a troubled young man who’s been in and out of state institutions since childhood.

The movie flips between James’ daredevil past and his prison-bound present, with a difference of about three years in between. In prison, James mostly lifts weights in the yard and cultivates a mild rivalry with tough guy Guillermo (Taboo of the Black-Eyed Peas). He butts heads with a rather reasonable white-haired prison guard (Woods) and tries to extend protection to a weedy newly admitted inmate (Ben Rosenfield) who’s easy prey for Guillermo.

The movie takes us back three years. After his mother (Parker) unsuccessfully lobbies to get James admitted to a public school, 14-year-old James—restless and confined to his house by an unexplained ankle bracelet—sleeps, eats, watches TV, and writes in his journal, which he hides under his pillow. Eventually he grows bored and heads out to a convenience store, where, while trying to buy milk, he’s suddenly caught up in a shoplifting scheme by foolhardy Crystal (Rosa Salazar). Pretty soon he’s snipped his ankle bracelet and flown his mother’s coop to pal around with Crystal, drinking, smoking, and hooking up. He takes a job with her drug dealer, Roc (Michael Trotter).

If the exposition sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. So slowly does Jamesy Boy plod along and so clunky is the direction that it’s at once painfully obvious yet difficult to ascertain what its emotional climax is. White, who co-wrote the screenplay (based on the real story of James Burns), neatly threads together young James’ downward spiral with convict James’ realization that he can lead a better life; the tidy plot lacks edge or dimension, allowing nothing for the audience to grab onto.

Occasionally there are parallels to The Wire which any fan will note. James gets hung up on his second love interest (Taissa Farmiga), and she becomes an emblem of possibility for him—a portal to another, happier path. In this way he recalls Cutty, the likeable ex-convict who quietly shadows his old flame after he’s released from prison, observing the life that might have been. When young James proves himself with Roc, he reminds us of Michael, the promising fledgling gangster in seasons 4 and 5.

It’s uncertain whether White mimes The Wire deliberately, but in doing so, he squanders the opportunities he might have had. The characters in Jamesy Boy are as bland as they come, lacking in color and in sense; without development, they become blank criminal archetypes following a script, evincing little emotion. The scenarios—James being entertained at the strip club, recklessly speeding down a busy street, trying to strong-arm a club manager—are watered down to the point of being generic. Character details fall flat: James learned how to play basketball in juvenile detention, he threatened his mom with a knife at 10, he thinks he’s invincible. We don’t see him high, drunk, aroused, or even all that engaged; part of that is Lofranco’s monotonous acting, but the prosaic script prevents anyone from making an impression.

Even veteran Hollywood actors like Parker and Woods fail to bring anything to the film. Parker’s rough-around-the-edges mother is a slight tweak of her Weeds character, and Woods’ prison guard is far too sedate to rouse any feeling in a combative inmate let alone an audience.

While The Wire both frightened and enticed audiences, Jamesy Boy repels and disinterests. In its vanilla portrayal of drug culture, it churns out a sort of flimsy public service announcement, warning kids to straighten up and fly right. But no kid will be attracted to the game as seen in Jamesy Boy, though, because it’s not all that interesting.

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