Emile Hirsch plays a mysterious newcomer offering to help a nerd stand up for himself.
Craig Roberts, the actor first noticed here in Richard Ayoade’s charming Submarine, returns to that film’s Welsh Nowheresville for his debut as writer-director, Just Jim. Starring again as a high school kid whose fear-filled eyes herald an utter inability to navigate teenage society, Roberts this time gets help in the form of Emile Hirsch, a newly arrived American offering to make him cool. Comparisons to Submarine are not only inevitable but invited here, and they do no favors to a film that contains moments of cleverness and charm but whose script is half-baked. Its pedigree and cast will draw some fest attention, but commercial prospects are slim.
Roberts’ Jim is a familiar sort of outcast, looked at askance even by his family and harboring no secret passion beyond Nintendo and watching the same old films repeatedly in his local cinema. Even his dog abandons him early on. Roberts wallows longer than necessary in this sour existence before introducing new next-door neighbor Dean (Hirsch), whose name is far from the only signifier of mid-50s Rebel cool.
“Maybe you just need to man up a bit, stop being a bitch,” Dean counsels the boy on their first meeting, and he proceeds to coach the boy in male aggression. Where Roberts’s misshapen script gives us too much Act 1, it now shorts us: Jim’s transformation happens much too abruptly to believe, even in the context of a film that sometimes hints Dean is a Tyler Durden-like construct of Jim’s imagination. Soon he is hosting ragers while his parents are away, styling his hair and making headway with the freckly, pink-haired Jackie (Charlotte Randall). But Dean is more trickster than guru, and begins sowing seeds of Jim’s downfall before he’s even a success.
Hirsch earns his keep here, brightening the film substantially before the screenplay points the character toward incoherence. And Richard Stoddard’s deep-shadowed photography suits what might have been a lacerating black comedy about the self-imposed handicaps of boys who have no good reason to be social failures. But things don’t come together for Just Jim, whose eventual moral seems to be that there’s nothing wrong with settling into mediocrity.