MRR Review: "Jamesy Boy"

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A young gang member turns his life around in prison, thanks to the friendship he forms with a convicted murderer who becomes his mentor.
3

Rating: NR
Length: 109 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 3, 2014
Directed by: Trevor White
Genre: Crime / Drama / Family

"Jamesy Boy" is a true tale, based on the experiences of James Burns, a teenager who embarked on a life of crime and wound up incarcerated. Thanks in part to the positive influence of a fellow inmate who elects to mentor the young man, Burns reinvents himself while behind bars. He ultimately becomes a college-educated poet during his time in prison, returning to the world a changed man.

Two of the film's producers, brothers Trevor and Tim White, grew up in Annapolis, Md., and were aware of Burns' youthful misadventures. The men contacted the ex-felon and persuaded the man to permit them to tell his tale in a feature film.

"Jamesy Boy" marks the directorial debut of Trevor White. He also shares screenwriting credit with Lane Shadgett. White manages to assemble an impressive cast, from which he garners solid performances all around. Believability is always a key to the success of films based on true-to-life stories, and White accomplishes this necessary objective with both a solid screenplay that includes powerful dialogue, as well as with actors that not only portray their characters solidly, but also play off their counterparts with ease.

Spencer Lofranco plays the lead role of James with finesse in "Jamesy Boy." New to the Hollywood scene, Lofranco has one other feature film to his credit: 2013's "At Middleton." He stars in a second film to release in 2014 called "Home." The fresh-faced actor plays a troubled gang member, with run-ins with the law dating back to when he barely was a teen. He finally ends up incarcerated for an extended period.

At first blush, Lofranco may seen too innocent, too gentle in his appearance to take on the role of a depraved individual. Ultimately, the combination of Lofranco's seemingly gentle appearance combined with the criminal conduct of the character works to lend a sense of believability to the role. Lofranco breaks the frequent Hollywood cliché that hardened criminals must always appear hard in their appearance.

Perhaps because of the hint of vulnerability in his presentation, Lofranco develops a character for which moviegoers develop a meaningful sense of empathy. Indeed, absent this ability on Lofranco's part, the overall presentation of this film ran the risk of being the formulaic exercise often presented in the frequently used crime, prison and redemption genre. Lofranco is particularly compelling in one of the climactic scenes of the film, when he appears before the parole board. He certainly holds his own on the screen against seasoned Hollywood veterans. A plausible argument can be made that he actually carries the film in the truest sense of the word. Although his name was not widely known at the time "Jamesy Boy" released, moviegoers rightfully should expect to see more of Lofranco in the future.

The film includes a stellar supporting cast that includes Ving Rhames, Mary-Louise Parker and James Woods. Ving Rhames gets high marks for his performance as Conrad, who is serving a life sentence for murder and happens upon the newly incarcerated James. In short time, Conrad becomes a mentor for James, but not of the traditional convict type. Rather, it is Conrad that sets James on a positive course for the future of his life.

Rhames puts in a thoughtful performance. Although he has the physical presence that fits the stereotype of the Hollywood — and real world — inmate, his performance is nuanced and includes obvious intelligence and more subtle gentleness that renders his character likable, believable and trustworthy. He presents a character to be reckoned with, but also one to be believed when he shares insights with the younger inmate.

A longtime star of the silver screen, Mary-Louise Parker is more recently known for her role as the suburban pot dealer on the Showtime hit series "Weeds." Parker turns in a strong performance as James' mother. James Woods, in the role of the warden, also satisfies and makes a believable presentation.

Although the crime genre is replete with films that tell the stories of men and women who find redemption while incarcerated, "Jamesy Boy" provides a somewhat more gentle take on the formula. Rather than facing a violent confrontation as is presented in "American History X," or some other dramatic turn of events, the lead character in this film undergoes a change in the direction of his life through writing poetry and through the words of an older con. The calm ways in which his life alters contrasts smartly with the depraved, violent manner in which James conducted himself before he ended up locked away behind bars.

Rating: 3 out of 5