James Burns’s story is extraordinary, but it doesn’t seem like one that needs to be told.
In Jamesy Boy, director Trevor White frames the former teen gang member’s life as an uplifting coming-of-age prison drama that feels entirely disconnected from the realities of incarceration. Worse, White’s decision to shackle his film to a redemptive arc ends up making Burns’s story an argument for juvenile imprisonment.
Jamesy Boy crisscrosses between Burns (Spencer Lofranco) at age 14, when he was an apple-cheeked thug, and age 18, when the pretty-boy convict is up for parole. James has been intermittently institutionalized for violence since age six, but the film is too timid to show him at his worst. Instead of delving into Burns’s underlying psychological issues, Jamesy Boy opts for Important Lessons about society, even while set in a world that resembles nowhere in America.
A scene that illustrates how a person can’t be reduced to his rap sheet plays touchingly the first time; the audience needn’t be hammered by the point twice more. Racial strife dominates the prison yard yet gets put on hold anytime James encounters the wise black man (a typecast Ving Rhames) who turns him around.
Only James’s romance with the shy daughter of a liquor-store owner (Taissa Farmiga) ever rings true. “I’m gonna take you away from this shithole neighborhood. Things are going to be different. We’re going to be different,” the pubescent middle-school dropout promises her.
For that brief moment, the film admits Burns’s story is a tragedy.