Ahh, the age old redemption tale, typically a completely unsavory male character, usually criminal and drug addict, hates the world and in steps a beautiful woman or cute kid (usually the latter) and as if by magic the child being annoying, often obnoxious and destructive acts like pixy dust and changes our antihero from a borderline sociopath into Dudley Do-right. We’ve seen it in countless films from Big Daddy, The Game Plan, Are We There Yet..I could make an entire article of just the list of films that fall into this formula and unfortunately most of them are pure shit. The idea that you can completely change someone’s deepest inner being simply by introducing another person (who’s often worse then them but happens to be a child) is absolutely ludicrous and unrealistic. There’s been a few where it worked, like my personal favorite ME AND THE KID but most have fallen flat and seemed downright fake. My latest blind screener request found me a film that falls into the category of “kid saves man” redemption story..but believe it or not, not only worked but came across as completely natural!
KNUCKLE JACK Follows Jack, a reclusive artist who “sells” his art in a very interesting way; by entering the homes of the rich, stealing what he feels they don’t need and replacing it with his artwork. At a young age Jack had a traumatizing life changing event that left him emotionally damaged to the point where he’s taken to living in a cabin in the woods by himself and passing his waking hours in a haze of drugs, alcohol stealing and creating art. All He really wants is to be left alone in this haze but it seems that fate has a different plan for him. Jack’s sister becomes very ill and Jack is forced to care for his young niece Frankie. When Frankie winds up entering a house that Jack is robbing he decides that it’s time to stop lying and that the best solution is to take her on as his partner…But who’s leading who here?
Before I go into reviewing this one I want to give you a brief back story on the people who made it. Wonder Wheel, the production house behind this film, is made up of John Adams Toby Poser and their two young daughters Zelda and Lulu. The family does everything from the cinematography, acting, sound, lighting, editing and producing. In fact both of the young girls operate the camera here. Now you may expect this film to look like a home video and be riddled with amateur shots..well you’d be wrong!
Utilizing the gorgeous Catskill Mountains of upstate New York the cinematography here is beyond gorgeous. Everywhere you look is bright greens and oranges offset by well shot dirt roads, hell even the pavement here looked beautiful, and the town we see in some scenes looks like a Norman Rockwell painting to the point that I was waiting for a small group of lanky gap tooth basketball players to show up at any moment! The camerawork, Be it done on a tripod or the shots that were almost defiantly done the handheld way are all rock steady, each shot clear and crisp. Most of the shots are pretty straight forward,but sometimes basic is best.
The story here was also pretty basic and straight forward, but adding the element of Jack being an artist at heart and the real route of his problem being his questioning his worth as a human being made it work where. Jack is never a villain really, he’s just misguided and lost from humanity. There’s never a sense that Jack is irredeemable really, just in need of a guiding hand, someone to get down to his level and connect with him.
The characters here are what really make the film work. Frankie is a shy, almost introverted child. They don’t go into this in the film, but I would guess that she doesn’t have too many friends, She’s almost a mirror image of Jack in that aspect, and perhaps that’s what makes their on screen relationship seem so natural (although I’m sure them being a real life father and daughter helped a bit as well) The subtle transformation both the characters make as they pull each other out of their respective bubbles is one that happens very gradually rather then all at once like in most films that fit in this overpopulated subgenre and that’s why it works. Jack doesn’t become prince charming and completely denounce his sinful ways in the end, in fact we don’t know what happens either way what we do see though is a rebirth of his humanity, a light in his eyes that we didn’t see from the get go and we also see a new confidence and self assurance in the way that Frankie moves and speaks.
By the end of the film I realized that this film isn’t just a child redeems man film, it’s a study of humanity in general, a showcase on how our interactions with one another as a species sculpts who we are. The introduction of another person into our lives may not change us into ideal specimens of our species, but perhaps love can make us see things through new eyes.
I give this film two middle fingers cut off and sanded to the bone, It was touching, absolutely beautiful to look at and it gets my vote for best drama of the year hands down. The “Wonder Wheel” family are a force to be reckoned with and I wouldn’t be surprised if their names are world known some day.