By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
Craig Roberts was not even 20 when the lead role in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine (2010) thrust him into a very indie kind of fame. It’s that same film that runs through the spine of Just Jim, a dark coming-of-age comedy that serves as a credible, if patchy directing and writing debut for the still only 24 year old.
After a sojourn in Hollywood – minor roles in 2014 comedies Bad Neighbours and 22 Jump Street – this is a homecoming for Roberts, literally as it’s set in his hometown of Maesycwmmer in South East Wales. He’s clearly not afraid of a challenge. As if writing and directing a film before he even reaches a quarter of a century isn’t enough, Roberts takes on the lead role as Jim, a buttoned up teenage loner who spends his days playing old video games and pining after a girl blissfully oblivious to his existence.
A figure of fun for the cool kids, when they pay attention to him at all, Jim’s life is turned upside down by the arrival of a louche and undeniably cool American next door. Putting Hollywood contacts to good use, Roberts secures Emile Hirsch as Dean, a chain-smoking, hip dude who looks like he fell out of a twisted alternative universe Grease (1978). For reasons unknown, Dean takes Jim under his wing, teaching him all the basics; lying, stealing, romancing and physical violence. As is the way with bad boys, he charms the pants off Jim’s parents (Nia Roberts and Aneirin Hughes), securing himself steadfast allies when he turns on the mini-monster he himself created.
The central story is a haphazard construction, frequently losing focus and drifting off down odd tangents from cross-country racing to a missing dog. When it does remain on track, the lack of originality becomes glaring. There is nothing here that hasn’t walked off the set of half a dozen teen coming-of-age dramas every year. It’s the lonely teen seeking acceptance narrative dressed up with increasingly disturbing interventions from Hirsh’s mysterious interloper. Strip away all the padding and there’s not a whole lot worth attention.
It’s a good job the padding proves so effective. Roberts demonstrates time and again that his heart lies with the offbeat humour of Ayoade rather than the smoothed edges of his mainstream comedy appearances. Jim’s attempts to chat-up classmates are excruciatingly funny, and his blithe perseverance in the face of athletic mockery and non-attendance at a tragically uncool birthday party – a party at which his own parents put the wrong age on the banner – mines social embarrassment confidently. The minor humiliations of teenage life are mercilessly exposed, most jokes drawing a wince as well as laughter.
The agonisingly mundane awkwardness of growing up is also acutely observed. From the feuds with an old friend who’s since moved onto bigger and better things, to the disdain with which Jim treats his own parents, Roberts shows a remarkable ability to nail down the teenage years many of us try to forget. His only venture out of the everyday is Dean, and even here the wild American is created as a deliberately over-the-top burst of wish-fulfilment. Dean, played with black-hearted verve by Hirsch, is everything an isolated Jim wishes he could be, as well as an effective vehicle to establish life in Maesycwmmer isn’t so bad after all.
Just Jim is more a calling card than a complete film, a collection of fascinating diversions tied to an overly familiar core. A number of sharp ideas sparkle on their own before losing lustre within the predictable plot. Ultimately, the potential goes mostly unrealised, but there’s no doubt it’s there.
Just Jim is released into cinemas today, Friday 25th September.