For an independent film, Jamesy Boy has a distinguished cast, including Ving Rhames, Mary-Louise Parker, and James Woods. But it's an unknown, Spencer Lofranco, who makes this gritty chronicle, based on a true story, so memorable.
Lofranco plays James Burns, who, when we meet him at 14, could pass for a young(er) Justin Bieber. Except he's wearing an ankle monitor, thanks to an extensive history of violence and criminal acts.
Parker plays his tough single mom, who continues to advocate for her son long after the system has washed its hands of him.
It's not just that James seems to run with the wrong crowd - Crystal (Rosa Salazar) has trouble all but tattooed on her - but even his best intentions seem to backfire.
The film toggles between his life in prison, which he entered at 17 on gun charges, and the road and the choices that got him there.
Woods plays a prison guard supervisor who tries to tame James' combative spirit. And Rhames gives a quietly forceful performance as a laconic lifer who encourages James' predilection for writing.
It's Lofranco, though, who is mesmerizing for the way he handles the physical and psychological maturation of James. He does a great job of showing the boy's thick, aggressive armor as well as the sensitivity that flashes like minnows beneath the surface.
The score - all hip-hop and Citizen Cope - is tasty and complementary.
For such a seriously street film, Jamesy Boy has some surprisingly sappy moments. But the redemptive ending, while thin, is genuinely gratifying.
Jamesy Boy **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Trevor White. With Spencer Lofranco,
Ving Rhames, Mary-Louise Parker, and James Woods. Distributed by Phase 4 Films/XLrator Media.
Running time: 1 hour 48 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (sex, nudity, profanity, violence, substance abuse)
Playing at: Roxy Theatre