There's plenty of inspiration to be found in "Jamesy Boy," the based-on-a-true-story tale of a jailed street tough who, after much trial and error, finds redemption and a productive life inside the margins of society.
But that's an old warhorse of a story, and there's simply not enough up on the screen to make this take on it appreciably different from so many that have come before. Watching it, there's the nagging suspicion that there should be more to all this, and the occasional scene hints at what makes the story of James Burns distinctive enough to warrant big-screen treatment. But the movie stubbornly refuses to go down those paths.
Newcomer Spencer Lofranco plays Burns, a sullen teen who's misunderstood at home — his mother (Mary-Louise Parker) tries desperately, but the kid is in serious need of a father figure — and shunned at school (when he even bothers to go there). The only people he's able to relate to are teens even more troubled than he is and a violent drug pusher who welcomes him into the fold (think Fagin from Dickens' "Oliver Twist," but with a short fuse and far more firepower), with predictably tragic results.
Burns ends up in jail, where he simultaneously runs afoul of the corrupt, overwhelmed warden (James Woods, phoning it in) and is befriended by the gruff but surprisingly literate lifer-with-a-heart-of-gold (Ving Rhames). The warden sees this kid as just another piece of meat for the prison system to devour, while the inmate believes this is a kid worth helping.
And so it goes, as the opposing forces battle for James' soul. There's little missing where all this is headed, especially when shy, beautiful Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) shows up as the girl from the right side of the tracks who sees James' underlying goodness.
Lofranco makes James both believable and appealing; you understand that this guy is more damaged than dangerous. And Parker nails her too-infrequent scenes.
Annapolis native Trevor White, in his feature-film directorial debut, exhibits a sure hand and a keen eye, letting the story play out without unnecessary tricks or overwrought narrative. But the script, co-written by White and Lane Shadgett, lets way too many ends dangle. Story threads that suggest new or intriguing twists in the story are given short shrift.
One of the movie's emotional high points, for example, involves James picking up a pen and starting to write down his thoughts; clearly, putting pen to paper provides him with an emotional catharsis. But there's little suggestion early in the movie that writing will play a significant future role. The moment seems to come out of nowhere.
Similarly, the relationship between James and Rhames' character suggests promise that is never really developed. And the relationship between James and Sarah, though sweet, portends much more than is delivered.
"Jamesy Boy" tries to pay equal attention to all aspects of James' story, perhaps assuming that the result of all his travails will be enough to satisfy audiences. It understands what makes James Burns' story inspiring, but it is unable to settle on what makes it interesting.