Jack (2021)

“So Charlie, you going to school today?”, asks Mom (Mara Ashton) over breakfast near the beginning of Pelayo De Lario’s feature debut Jack, co-written with Elena Conte.

“I’m in third year of university, Mom,” film student Charlie (Luke Rollason) replies. The truth is, though, that Charlie is somewhat arrested and puerile – not unlike the film in which he is appearing. Jack is so-called because that is the name of Charlie’s penis, who is also the film’s narrator (voiced by De Lario), at the helm of both the story and of Charlie’s active if addled libido. A keen masturbator but otherwise inexperienced in sex, Charlie is in love with new girl Barbie Le Fleur (Angela Sant’Albano) who has just transferred from Canada and feels safe in Charlie’s company because she thinks he is gay. Charlie is starting to wonder about that too, not least because of his attraction to the university’s counsellor Mr Hand (Luis Mottola), who not only looks and talks, according to the aroused Jack, “like Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem had a baby and he became a psychologist” but who also has confused his personal backstory with the plots of various Hitchcock films (North By North West, The Birds, Psycho). 

It might make sense that the sex worker Anna Lin Jektion (Petra Hajduk) whom Charlie mistakenly visits in the belief that she is a therapist comes with a nom de guerre that is pure innuendo, but here seemingly everyone’s name –  from Mr Hand, to Charlie’s other love interest Amber Tical (Saskia West), to his best friend Rock Anrol (Philip Tomlin) –  involves a verbal play on sex and drugs and rock and roll. Even Charlie’s own surname Bones, and the titular name of his dick, offer barely veiled references to penetration and masturbation. It is hardly subtle, but nor is a kidult’s one-track mind, and there is the sense that this brightly coloured, oversexualised world is constructed from the desires, drives and fantasies of our priapic hero. After all, Jack’s phallocentrism is right there in the title. 

Still, the lessons that Charlie learns in his confused rites of passage are actually kind of sweet: that it is possible (pace When Harry Met Sally) just to be friends with a member of the opposite sex; that honesty is always better; and that, ironically enough for a film featuring a talking penis, the best option in life, and in sexual relations, is not to be a dick – a lesson that comes easily to the good-natured, essentially kind Charlie, but hard to Beckham Beckham (Ray Calleja), the two-timing boyfriend of Charlie’s sister (Georgie-Jane Osborne). In fact, the whole film is a strange blend of sex positivity and coyness, again reflecting Charlie’s somewhat repressed personality and his inner conflict. The title character may be heard, but is never seen, unless covered in clothing or heavily pixellated – and for the most part Jack plays as a stoner romcom about a young man seeking a largely healthy, balanced relationship not just with a sexual partner, but with his own needy manhood.  

Shot in London during the second Covid lockdown, Jack is a scrappily absurd excursion into the male psyche – a mind divided between Darwinian impulses and more socialised, civilised values. This is, seemingly, an exaggerated work of semi-autobiography, with Charlie’s emergence as a film director matching De Lario’s own, even as De Lario, in a moment of metacinema, enjoys an on-screen cameo as the director of this film. Both Charlie and De Lario end up making a “film about the sexual misadventures of a university student”  – although only Charlie’s will earn him three Oscars. Still, Jack is De Lario’s calling card, showcasing what he can achieve with an extremely low budget. It is hit and miss, and rough around the edges – but at its core is a story of a late adolescent who learns how to love a partner as much as he loves both himself and cinema. Think of it as the screwball companion piece to Adam Fields’ One-Eyed Monster (2008) and Frank Henenlotter’s Bad Biology (2008), closing this loose trilogy of films about penises with minds of their own. Here we are watching an aspirant if immature filmmaker finding his feet, getting his girl, and (repeatedly) coming of age.

strap: Pelayo De Lario’s microbudget, metacinematic sex comedy shows an aspirant if immature film student (repeatedly) coming of age.

© Anton Bitel