Thursday, 24 September 2015

New best fiend: "Just Jim"

Just Jim, the directorial debut of the still unfeasibly young actor Craig Roberts (24), in some ways picks up where 2011's Submarine left off: again, we find Roberts centre stage as a bright if overly sensitive smalltown loner in desperate search of new friends. Cornered at almost every turn by his school's bullies - who've conferred upon him the non-affectionate nickname "Shitpants", doubtless as the kid forever looks likely to do exactly that - poor Jim doesn't know which way to turn: a callously indifferent sweetheart, and his comfortably inert parents, provide no particular consolation. One night, Jim returns home from a long, bully-induced walk to find Dean (Emile Hirsch), an individual purporting to be the family's new American neighbour, sitting waiting for him in the dark. Dean takes one look at the stripling, and snarls the line that will change his nondescript life for good: "You need to man up."

With these words, the emergent Roberts oeuvre deviates from the Richard Ayoade CV: without sacrificing any of his mentor's cult cachet, the younger director pushes beyond stylised cutesiness and into the territory of something like Fight Club. (Roberts surely has to have realised that redoing Fight Club in a small Welsh village is a very funny idea indeed.) The chainsmoking, gun-wielding Dean toughens Jim up - piercing his ears, tattooing his arms, teaching him to strike back at his oppressors - and as this transformation takes hold, one senses Roberts striving to give himself a way of playing just a percentage or two harder than his quickly established screen persona has so far permitted. (The red sports jacket/white T-shirt combination he wears throughout the second half suggests Rebel Without a Cause as another possible influence.)

Something similar looks to be going on behind the camera, too. Roberts the director has the eye for droll sight gags you might expect from his acting assignments: one set-up finds Jim sitting alone at his 16th birthday party as the banner announcing the occasion slides off the wall behind him. More often, you see him and cinematographer Richard Stoddard playing expressively with light: a heightened level of Venetian-blind activity that appears to bleed in from the pastiche 40s noirs Jim slopes off to watch on his lonesome, a date conducted under a Lynchian spotlight in a restaurant otherwise cast in the deepest, darkest shadow. The weirdness can seem studied and secondhand, and it may well be the case that Roberts is, at time of writing, just too much the nice guy to let it go too far: even when Hirsch is on screen, the film's more oddball than truly unnerving. (Some of it - like the family dance sequence, and some slo-mo underwater business - has the look of artful padding designed to get the running time up to eighty minutes.) Yet your interest and curiosity is sustained: there's a quietly twisted promise here that the moneymen would do well to follow up on.

Just Jim opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.  

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