Director: Craig Roberts
Cast: Craig Roberts, Emile Hirsch, Sai Bennett
Watch Just Jim online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / BFI Player / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
What is it with young actors and overbearing, existentialist directorial debuts? Earlier this year, we had Ryan Gosling go semi-Lynch in flaccid poverty fantasia Lost River. And now here comes Just Jim, an equally precocious, yet infinitely more tenable, teen parable from Submarine star Craig Roberts, returning to Welsh soil after an unlikely American adventure that saw him dawdling on the fringes of obnoxious frat-coms like Neighbours and 22 Jump Street.
There’s very little dawdling in Just Jim, which gets all of its angst-ridden business done and dusted in an admirable 78 minutes. There is, however an awful lot of fringe, both figuratively and literally, in this enjoyable but derivative yarn about an adolescent outsider moving from the edge of frame to the centre of shot in the movie of his life.
In an astonishing act of gumption, one even the golden Gosling himself wouldn’t dare emulate, Roberts casts himself in the lead role of Jim. Elsewhere, a super-charged Emile Hirsch plays Dean, Jim’s mysterious (and possibly imaginary) American neighbour. Dean is basically the Tyler Durden of the piece: immaculately coiffured and jacketed, a cigarette hanging on the edge of his lip by the merest dab of spit. Dean tutors Jim (James/Dean, see?) in how to achieve optimum coolness and in particular, how to seduce the object of his affections. But Dean’s intentions aren’t always clear and, piece by piece, he insidiously slithers himself into Jim’s life, with sinister consequences.
Thematically speaking, it all feels a little on-the-nose for Roberts, a performer who often seems under-utilised in bigger US productions. It’s little surprise he renders the Devil to his Robert Johnson so specifically in the image of a classic American anti-hero. Though while it’s tempting to read Just Jim as a gauche metaphor for Roberts’ personal Hollywood sojourn, there’s slightly more going on here than the gripes and grumbles of a disgruntled actor.
Just Jim is a movie about movies, and their influence on how we look, communicate and behave. But it’s a surface view, the kind you’d expect from a young film-maker in his very first outing. Roberts references visual cues from other directors, such as David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), David Fincher (Fight Club) and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), but struggles to impress his own personality on the piece.
The primary and inevitable influence is Ayoade’s Submarine, echoes of which reverberate throughout the film like pings on a sonar display screen: small town nostalgia, shot with arrant symmetry and a never-ending cavalcade of awkward zooms. Roberts clearly has an eye for a striking image (in one memorable sequence, he invites the audience to imagine a decrepit “For Sale” sign as gallows) but he’s in thrall to his heroes, not least his mentor.
The Ayoade imprint extends to Roberts’ screenplay, too. The first two acts are completely charming, brimming with lovely jokes, but so many scenes evoke the spirit of Submarine, they often resemble wholesale re-writes. The script then accelerates far too quickly into a bleak and lurid finale that negates much of the appeal of the earlier movements. Jim’s transformation is unconvincing, and the resolution unsatisfying.
And yet, the core skills are here. The principal performances are authentic, witty and truthful. Roberts knows how to position and move his camera, as well as how shot choices illuminate character. For such a small scale production, Richard Stoddard’s cinematography is distinctive and evocative, especially those delicate glints of half-light that irradiate the darkest corners of Jim’s world. Just Jim isn’t a great film, but there are glimmers of greatness.
Just Jim is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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