The directorial debut of Craig Roberts, who previously starred as a sensitive Welsh soul negotiating the perils of teenage life in Richard Ayoade’s enjoyable comedy Submarine, Just Jim can be described a film with a split personality (perhaps in more ways than one). For the first half hour the screenplay, also penned by the director and star, covers very similar ground to Ayoade’s film: despite being 24 in real life Roberts easily passes for the 16-year-old Jim, a quiet, uncool kid living in a small Welsh town who is subjected to one mortifying embarrassment after another both at school and at home. At the beginning of the film we find him alone, and lonely: has recently fallen out with best-and-only friend Michael (Ryan Owen), has lost his dog, is bullied by classmates and a PE teacher who could easily have stepped right out of the golden days of Grange Hill and has seemingly no chance with the girl he fancies, a pink-haired silent type who shares his love of videogames.
This is familiar British underdog coming-of-age territory, even if it is carried out with wit and warmth, but a change in tone and a left-turn in the plot occurs when a new American neighbour moves in next door to Jim’s family. Emile Hirsch’s Dean is an obvious nod to James Dean, and his 50’s-style haircut, clothes and convertible mark him out as such every bit as much as his name, though his behaviour and appearance also brings to mind Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, the livewire focus of GoodFellas. (As an aside it’s interesting to note that this was released in the UK on the same day as Anton Corbijn’s new film Life, which is based on James Dean’s friendship with photographer Dennis Stock). And though it’s never really clear whether Dean is a figment of Jim’s imagination or not, he apparently makes it his mission to reverse Jim’s fortunes at home and at school: suddenly Jim is cool, briefly gets the girl of his dreams (there’s a funny scene in which she expresses her disappointment with their first kiss before the pair move on to more comforable ground playing videogames together) and even hosts a party that briefly turns him into the most popular kid around. Yet this is no Youth In Revolt rip-off: as the film looks more and more to America (Jim adopts a 50’s greaser look, his comprehensive school is shot to make it look like a typical US high school, the party he holds is a keg party, etc) it moves away from being a self-deprecating teenage comedy and turns into a slightly-disturbing, nightmarish and edgy drama that tips its hat to the work of David Lynch (a ‘Queen Mary’s Street’ to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, if you will) and becomes concerned with mental health and self-harm, albeit with slight superficiality.
Sadly it doesn’t quite hold together, although it’s always good to see someone messing with the formula of a typical genre piece and attempting to fashion something new, and fresh. The Lynch-referencing scenes are actually very well observed, even though the routine imitation of the director by lesser filmmakers is now turning into a bit of a joke: bright reds, greens and blues come out of the darkness as Roberts opts increasingly for scenes shot at night and bizarre dream sequences, while there’s an unsettling, repeated link made to a (fake) old film noir that seems to be showing on a constant loop in Jim’s local cinema, an otherwise empty fleapit containing a decidedly creepy usherette. The film actually looks very good indeed – due credit to cinematographer Richard Stoddard – and Hirsch makes the most of his incongruity, cartoonishly exhuding a stereotypically-American brand of cool. It’s an intriguing debut that suggests the director will go on to produce better work, and it retains a pleasing ambiguity until the very last shot, but sadly it comes up short when compared with the films that have influenced Roberts at this point in his career.
Directed by: Craig Roberts.
Written by: Craig Roberts.
Starring: Craig Roberts, Emile Hirsch.
Cinematography: Richard Stoddard.
Editing: Stephen Haren.
Music: Michael Price.
Running Time: 84 minutes.