Film Review: Jamesy Boy

Though based on the turbulent youth of co-producer James Burns, a minor-league drug user and dealer, <i>Jamesy Boy</i> nevertheless plays like a formulaic tale of tribulation and redemption.

Fourteen-year-old James Burns (Spencer Lofranco) was born angry, or so it seems to his devoted but exhausted mother, Tracy (Mary-Louise Parker), who's raising both James—already saddled with an ankle-monitor thanks to regular run-ins with the juvenile justice system—and his younger sister on her own. Though a ferocious advocate for her problem child, Tracy's influence is gradually eclipsed by that of feral bad-girl Crystal (Rosa Salazar), a pot-puffing, anything-for-kicks whirlwind who lures the pale, slender James into dealing drugs for her lover, Roc (Michael Trotter).
Within three years, James has graduated to real jail, the company of adult felons and pitiless guards like Lieutenant Falton (James Woods, characteristically menacing even when saying perfectly reasonable things), and prison body-building, which though thoroughly sensible—a middle-class white boy who looks as though he's going to fight back and put some muscle into it is a more problematic target than a skinny little bitch—comes straight from the slammer-movie playbook.
That James transcends his season in hell is a foregone conclusion, as is his harassment by hot-headed gangbanger Guillermo (musician Taboo), the sad fate of even paler and skinnier Chris (Ben Rosenfield, of HBO's “Boardwalk Empire”), and his mentoring by a wise, African-American murderer (Ving Rhames) who warns James that if he doesn't keep his eyes on the prize—getting out and resuming a place in normal society—he's going to wind up a lifer.
All of which may just mean that doing time is a monotonously predictable experience for just about everyone who winds up in jail, determined primarily by social class and the expectations that go with it: The hot-headed James Burnses of the world may act out as teenagers—that is, after all, what teenagers do—but most of them don't expect to spend their whole lives cycling in and out of jail, and don't. And of course, knowing that James Burns is alive and capable of co-producing a movie about his experience behind bars robs the story of his reformation of its potential suspense, since we know from the start that he seriously got his act together. Producing movies isn't for burnouts, though it does favor smooth-talkers and prisons are notoriously full of them.