Just Jim by Welsh actor, writer and director Craig Roberts, is a dark, offbeat coming-of-age story set in South Wales.
A Darkness in the Valleysby Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Very little light shines in young Jim’s life. A teenage schoolboy in a small, non-descript South Wales town in the 1980s, his adolescent angst is all-encompassing. Played by multi-hatted writer and director Craig Roberts, best known for Submarine, things go from bad to worse for the hapless Jim.
From classroom teasing in the shade of a Venetian blind to the half-light of the family home, monochrome Jim (Craig Roberts) is constantly overlooked for his older and more brightly-coloured sister, who is more Stepford than Stella. His only friend, Michael, starts dating the pink-haired siren Jim lusts after and brings their friendship to an end, while his canine companion Cliff runs off leaving him more alone than ever. Constantly sparking a broken lighter, Jim spends his days watching grainily projected black and white thrillers in the deserted local cinema, staffed by a paranoid usherette, one of the only humans with whom Jim converses on a day-to-day basis. There’s barely a chink of light on the horizon.
Darkly comic at times, Jim’s parents encourage him to try harder to make friends. Thinking big, he invites everyone he knows to his birthday party, only to find his parents get his age wrong and no-one turns up. As the lights go out in the church hall, Jim’s morale sinks even lower. Suddenly everything changes in the form of a new neighbour. Jim’s desperate wish for something exciting to happen is finally fulfilled. A rebel without a cause, stranger Dean (Emile Hirsch) throws open the curtains on Jim’s obscurity. With a transatlantic twang, red convertible, leather jacket, perfect teeth and slicked back hair, Dean is everything Jim longs to be, in a word: cool. Shedding light on Jim’s misery, Dean offers to take him under his wing and induct him into the ways of coolness: of course, Jim jumps at the chance of a much-needed makeover.
Buoyed by advice from his new guru, Jim gets a new haircut and a suspect tattoo, pierces his ears and announces he is going to win the much-anticipated school cross-country race despite the jeers of his PE teacher. Thanks to Dean’s somewhat unconventional intervention, he does just that, finally bringing him to the attention of the waif-like rose-haired Jackie, who is otherwise permanently engrossed in her Gameboy.
Jim’s parents are also strangely drawn to the silver-tongued American, who flirts with his mother and indulges his ageing father’s thwarted sporting ambitions. Dean, it seems, will go to any lengths to help Jim, threatening the weedy Michael to stay away from Jackie so that Jim can sweep in with his new-found desirability. Punching above his weight, Jim takes Jackie out for a cringingly awkward first date at a local restaurant, where such new-fangled concepts as customer service were obviously sorely lacking thirty years ago. Faultlessly well-observed, after a clumsy kiss, Jackie and Jim finally bond over a relaxed stint on the Gameboy.
Egged on by Dean, Jim throws another party and this time it is destined to be a wild, debauched affair in comparison to the empty church hall of what seems like a lifetime ago. Unexpectedly, the lights go out again and things take a dark turn as it becomes clear that Dean may not be everything he appeared to be, and that rather than boosting Jim’s confidence, he is actually sabotaging the young, trusting lad’s development. Despite the well-wrought build-up and clever humour, Just Jim’s ending ultimately proves somewhat unsatisfying. The relationship between Dean and Jim deteriorates in bloody fashion, seeing Jim eventually emerge into the light and return to his old life, all the wiser for his brush with the Pennsylvanian bad boy and realising that perhaps he didn’t have it so bad after all.
Officially selected at this year’s South by South West, yet barely 80 minutes long, Just Jim is a quirky tale about growing up and fitting in that will ring many bells. At its best in its nostalgic observation, Jim eventually sees the light.
Just Jim is released in the UK on 25 September 2015