Stop me if you've heard this one: street tough youth gets involved with drugs and gangs, but turns his life around in prison by writing poetry and becoming friends with a veteran inmate. Jamesy Boy, the debut feature by director Trevor White, is based on the true story of James Burns; a former thug-turned-filmmaker who somebody thinks has a story worthy of being told. And while the film is generally well-made and features a strong central performance by newcomer Spencer Lofranco, it's too riddled with cliché to feel genuine.
When we first meet James (Lofranco) he's faced down in the dirt on his first day in maximum security, a place he'll be spending the next few years of his young life. Flashing back a few years we learn that he's always been a trouble-maker and prone to violence. His mother (Mary-Louise Parker) vouches for him and believes he'll change, just as she did, but it isn't long before he's seduced by the streets and falls in with a local hood; selling drugs and pulling off petty robberies. He's more brazen than the other kids who've fallen into the criminal underworld, and soon he's the boss's favorite, while also too smart for his own good.
Burns didn't write the script himself, merely serving as a co-producer, but one can't help but wonder what kind of influence he had on how he was depicted. We're expected to believe that underneath the violent tendencies and willingness to exploit others is a heart of gold. That would be easier to take if we saw the circumstances that drove James towards the life he chose, or were given a reason for his sudden change of heart other than a flirtation with an innocent shop girl played by Taissa Farmiga.
Despite telling the story in a needlessly convoluted non-linear fashion, the film does hit on something raw when we flash forward to James' time in prison. It's there that he realizes his love of poetry, and Ving Rhames' powerful presence takes hold as a "lifer" who teaches James what real courage looks like. Lofranco measures up well opposite Rhames, and he's got a certain tough-guy charisma similar to a young Mark Wahlberg. He's especially good opposite Farmiga, perhaps building off the chemistry they forged in the recent comedy, At Middleton. It's unfortunate that Parker's character seems to vanish about halfway through the movie because she brings a real hopefulness as James' mother, who only seeks to make sure her son doesn't repeat the mistakes of her past. A number of actors from The Wire turn up in brief cameos that don't add much other than giving its fans something to smile about.
Burns has overcome a lot of hardship in his life, and his story is truly inspiring, but not everybody's story needs to be a movie.