While this true prison drama is sharply shot and acted, there isn't a moment we haven't seen before. Instead of drawing out the uniqueness of the real events, the filmmakers rely on the usual stereotypes, which leaves this feeling more like a run-of-the-mill TV movie. But there's a very strong narrative buried in here, and some terrific performances underneath the preachy melodrama.
The title character is 14-year-old James (Lofranco), who has been in trouble with the law since he was 6. Abused as a child, he has a long and violent criminal record, and since he's been labelled as a "bad" kid he knows he'll never get a chance to achieve anything at his new high school. His mother (Parker) tries her best, but he still ends up hanging out with druggy Crystal (Salazar) and her gangster friend Roc (Trotter). For James, a life of crime seems more useful than going to school, so he begins working for Roc, only barely managing to avoid arrest and death. Then he meets local shop girl Sarah (Farmiga), who gives him a reason to rethink his life.
This plot is intercut with a parallel story of James in prison three years later, so we know what's going to happen. Of course, the thing that put him behind bars is the oldest cliche in the book: he does one last job for Roc before going straight for Sarah. This intercut half of the film is even darker, as James moves between warring with a rival inmate (Gomez) to clashing with the hard-headed warden (Woods) to resisting the advice of a Shawshank-like guru (Rhames) to trying to help a doomed newbie (Rosenfield).
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