With King Jack, a coming-of-age tale about a complex kid with a talent for getting into trouble, Felix Thompson makes his impressive feature film debut. The film won the Audience Award for best narrative film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Charlie Plummer (Boardwalk Empire) gives a breakout performance as Jack, a high-spirited 15-year-old as exasperating and difficult as he is sweet and good-hearted. Too young for the emotional baggage and heartbreak he carries around, he does the best he can in a decaying neighborhood where his survival instincts keep him focused on himself. Some of Jack’s problems swirl around a long-departed father, who in happier times placed a paper crown on his son’s head, carried him around on his shoulders, and called him King Jack.

Danny Flaherty (The Americans), another standout, plays Shane, an older neighborhood kid, a punk with his own issues who mercilessly bullies and humiliates Jack—who never backs down and seems to practically egg on his tormenter. The graphic bullying scenes are hard to take, but Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the subject with a subtlety and grace that doesn’t overpower the story.

Also worth singling out is supporting actor Christian Madsen—who looks just like his father, Michael Madsen—as Jack’s older brother, Tom, a tough guy in a dead-end job. Madsen strikes the right notes as a loyal brother, failed father substitute and possible vision of Jack’s future.

Jack matures one weekend when his mother charges him with taking care of his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols), a quiet kid with saucer brown eyes, whose own mom is sick. Ben shadows his older cousin and they unexpectedly hit it off. Jack’s character and loyalty is then tested when Shane and his delinquent pals entrap Ben in order to get to Jack. The film’s equal dosages of pathos and comedy, though, keep things from getting too heavy.

Director Felix Thompson Photograph by Alex Schaefer

Director Felix Thompson. Photograph by Alex Schaefer

During last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, I met with the 26-year-old Thompson at a restaurant in the Meatpacking District to talk about the film. (This was before the director won the $25,000 Audience Awards Prize for King Jack.) Originally from Australia, Thompson told me he came to the U.S. when he was 10 and lost his accent quickly. “In the public school system you do not want to be that weird foreign kid for too long,” he laughed.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What inspired you to write and direct King Jack?

Felix Thompson (FT): I met this writer when I was younger who said something that really stuck with me. He said, “I don’t create characters. I pluck them from my memory.” This beautiful sentiment stuck with me in my writing process. So King Jack was inspired from either a character I’ve met or a person that I’ve known. In particular, it was inspired by a lot of the crazy kids that I grew up with over the summers. I wanted to tell a story about what I felt growing up was about, which was learning to care for other people more than you care about yourself.

MM: Did you have a similar experience as a youngster to any of the kids in the film?

FT: I had a younger sister who’s about seven years younger, and I can distinctly remember a change in me when she was born. I had this realization, “Oh my God, that’s another person, you have to look after another person,” and it changed everything about my behavior. I was no longer getting into fights at school or anything like that. It really mellowed me out. I think ultimately it’s one of the most important things you can have as a kid, which is to have some kind of responsibility for someone else because it really makes you grow up very quickly.

MM: What was your production schedule like?

FT: We shot for 25 days. When you’re working with kids you can only really do eight to nine hours with them, which the crew loved. We never had a day longer than 12 hours for the crew so everyone was happy about that. We shot on the Red Epic and we shot up in Kingston, NY, which is just like a beautiful town to get to shoot in.

Jack (Charlie Plummer) and Ben (Cory Nichols). Photograph by Brandon Roots

Jack (Charlie Plummer) and Ben (Cory Nichols). Photograph by Brandon Roots

MM: The tone of your movie is interesting because it starts out as gritty and realistic—with some graphic bullying scenes—and then becomes almost a childlike fable. Can you talk about the film’s shift in tone?

FT: It definitely deals with issues of bullying and cycles of bullying. But also, and I know it’s sort of a cliché, but a lot of the movie deals with these ideas of how to be a man. And you can see it from everyone, from the older brother, who used to bully Shane, and then to Shane, who takes it out on Jack. And these things can just spiral and spiral until someone stops the chain, which is what Jack does.

For me it was a film that was for the kids who were kind of out the outsiders, who were a little ostracized. They weren’t totally accepted cause they are always sort of the easy targets and I wanted to write a film about one of those kids who just had more fight in him.

MM: Throughout the film Jack never reports the bullying, even when the bullying gets violent. Why?

FT: The idea of that was that it was Jack’s victory. He had lost the fight but he wasn’t defeated, and for me it would almost have been too easy, a cop-out, to then go to an authority figure because he’d finally dealt with it on his own. I know that’s not the best way to deal with bullying but I think it was about him learning to stand up for someone else.

MM: The kids are so believable I almost thought it was a documentary at first. Where did you find them?

FT: We had an amazing casting director, Avy Kaufman [The Sixth Sense, Brokeback Mountain], who really liked the script and came on board to cast it, which was just terrific. She helped us find Charlie. One of the big things we were thinking about in casting was, “This is a film that rests solely on the shoulders of a 15-year-old protagonist.” We knew we had to build the cast around him, so we hadn’t really been doing any other looking. We were looking purely for Jack first. And Avy was seeing people from Maine, Texas, kind of all over and I was even scouring the city for these high-school drama programs that I’d gone to for some of my previous short films.

Jack could have been a black kid, a Latino kid, and it would have totally informed the way the rest of the casting went. But then Charlie sent in a tape from Utah where he was on some show and you just saw the tape and you just knew. He was so alive and just fascinating to watch and he changed the role for me, which I think is something that you always hope as a director. And Danny [Flaherty] did the same thing when he came in as Shane. In my mind, Shane was always this physically imposing kind of character, so we were seeing all those kinds of guys. And Danny came in and he was this little weasel, which it was more terrifying in a way. In Danny you could see the kid who had been tormented and had now become the tormenter. It was so much down to the casting, and the kids brought so much to it.

The cast was incredibly grounded and nice. As a director, that’s all I’m looking for in the room. Are you connected? Are you grounded? And do I believe you’re actually talking to and listening to someone? And they have all that.

Jack (Charlie Plummer) and Ben (Cory Nichols) hide under a car to avoid Shane, the vicious local bully. Photograph by Brandon Roots

Jack and Ben hide under a car to avoid Shane, the vicious local bully. Photograph by Brandon Roots

MM: All the action of the film takes place against a backdrop of an economically depressed area where the future doesn’t look that promising, yet you haven’t made this a message film about society. Can you talk about that?

FT: I’ve lived in a lot of places, I’ve grown up in a lot of places, and I’ve known a lot of different kids from a lot of different places—some of them very depressed places. I really wanted to tell a story about one of those towns that you drive by on the highway and you never think twice about, just pass it by. I always look out the window and look at those towns and think, “There’s life there; what is that life there?” I knew a lot of kids who grew up in those kinds of towns.

My dad grew up in a working-class town in England and we’d always go back in the summer to see family, where I had a lot of friends there. It was kind of a really wonderful period in my life to grow up. It was sort of like in the film: All the parents were from the working class, and you had the run of the streets as kids, so you had to figure out right from wrong for yourself and there’s no one to look up to. But I really wanted to tell a story about that kind of place because there are two things I always feel about stories that tackle these issues. The first thing is I feel like sometimes they overindulge the hard knocks of those places. Because ultimately, the human condition is geared towards optimism, especially when you’re a kid. You find happiness in big surroundings, whether you’re playing in abandoned block or if you’re playing in a finely manicured lawn. Your predisposition is to find the joy, fun and something to amuse you, so I wanted to tell a story that was about that kind of childhood joy and fun in a tougher surrounding, without losing that sense of wonder of being a kid. MM

King Jack opens in theaters and on Demand June 10, 2016, courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.