The male locker room of a small town American high school, driven by the twin tribal ethics of bravado and bullying; when there isn’t a predator to eliminate the weakest they feel compelled to weed them out themselves. Adam McCormick saw what was happening but turned and walked away. Gracie Highsmith doesn’t have the option to walk away when she finds the dead body of Jamie Marks on the riverbank.
Nobody wanting to look too closely into what happened, the empty chair marks a silence in the classroom. When a student suggests that the class talk about what happened she is mocked by the teacher, but what he points out is true: not one of them knew Jamie and not one of them wanted to, but Adam tries to understand the boy whose face was superimposed on his on the next page of the yearbook but whose plight he ignored.
Drawn to the where the body was discovered, there he meets Gracie with whom he strikes up an awkward friendship, but when he visits Gracie at her home she catches him looking out the window into the dark to where a figure stands by the trees, cold and naked, just as she found him on the riverbank.
“Just pretend like you don’t see him,” she warns, but Adam already has. “I don’t want a dead boy lurking around outside of my house, okay? And trust me. Neither do you.”
Written and directed by Carter Smith and based on Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow, Jamie Marks is Dead is a far cry from Smith’s only previous feature, 2008’s leafy-death-in-the-jungle horror The Ruins, though again his focus is on a young cast dealing with events and issues beyond their control and experience, drawing from them sensitive performances which carry the film, the adults peripheral, almost irrelevant in their self-contained lives, their actions illogical, counter-productive, insensitive, a facade of normality.
“Don’t ever put your happiness in someone else’s hands,” Adam is told by his mother Linda (Robot and Frank‘s Liv Tyler) just before she leaves the house, only moments before she backs her car out of the driveway into the path of a truck. From her wheelchair, Linda asks Adam to forgive the driver; he responds by referring to her as “the paralyser.”
While Gracie works hard to protect herself, Adam is isolated, inheriting Jamie’s place as high school pariah, his only friend and confidante a dead guy who followed him home and now hides in a very symbolic closet, refusing to talk about who killed him. Adam needs to know who Jamie was, what happened to him; the others don’t understand, still mocking Jamie even in death.
The two leads are both extremely experienced, Cameron Monaghan having been in worked constantly since he was ten years old with guest roles in Threshold, Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, The Mentalist and Fringe and having recently been cast in Gotham, and Noah Silver having had a recurring role among the most challenging family on television, The Borgias.
There is much of James Bolton’s 2008 adaptation of Jim Grimsley’s novel Dream Boy in this, the rural setting, the fraught familial relationships, the relationship between the two young leads, though here Jamie’s attraction to Adam is unreciprocated, returned only with a deep but unconsummated affection, secrets spoken only by the light of the campfire how he used to watch Adam at track meets.
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and later screened at BFI Flare, the London LGBT Film Festival, with railroad bridges and empty school desks, the body found by the river, the deceased who still haunts the town, along with the spirit of Twin Peaks the stark bleakness of Winter’s Bone and Angel’s Crest is evident, but while Jamie Marks is Dead refuses to play it cool with any pop culture references which would make it an easier viewing experience it still manages to offer comfort and reassurance both for those lost and those who stay.