For this review, Judge Adam Arseneau has the right name for the job.
Who decides who gets a second chance?
Based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell and nominated for seven BAFTA awards, Boy A is a beautiful and moving film, one of the best dramas to emerge from the British Isles in recent memory. A powerhouse of a drama, it is a stunning achievement of dramatic narrative, but be warned: Boy A is wrenchingly powerful, and the place where the wrench goes is your groin.
Facts of the Case
At the age of 10, two troubled and emotionally confused young boys drag a like-aged girl under a bridge and murder her. Brought to trial and known only as Boy A and Boy B, they are locked up by society for their heinous crimes for as long as the law allows, and the media spurns them as vicious monsters.
Years later, the child known only to the world as Boy A (Andrew Garfield, The Other Boleyn Girl) is released from prison and looking for a new start. Now in his twenties, the youth is petrified of the outside world, having spent his formative years in a jail cell. He is aided in his attempt to rebuild his life by councilor Terry (Peter Mullan, Session 9), who sets him up with a place to live, a job, and a new identity—Jack.
Jack is still haunted by flashes of his past, but eager to find redemption. He finds a friend in his co-worker Chris (Shaun Evans) and even love in the arms of a girl, Michelle (Katie Lyons, Green Wing) and slowly, painfully, comes to terms with being Jack, an adult. He desperately wants to tell his friends his secret, but Terry, his lifeline to rehabilitation, utterly forbids it. If his secret got out, it would be the end of his new life. And it is a good life, a happy life.
After a series of events puts Jack in the local media spotlight, he wakes up one day to a message from his boss saying not to come into work. His girlfriend will not return his calls. His mate is nowhere to be found. He opens the door to leave his apartment and finds television cameras and newspaper reporters waiting for him. Boy A has been located, and Jack's life will never be the same again.
As Greek tragedies go, Boy A features a surprising amount of thick Manchester accents. Chuckle while you can, because this will be the only lighthearted and fun part about this review. The mind is willing, but the film is just too darn serious to joke about.
A gut-wrencher of a drama, Boy A is festooned with ethical conundrums, wrenching acting performances, and terse narrative; it's almost an exercise in viewer cruelty. Read over the plot summary one more time and take a guess at how the film ends; if you guessed "happily" then you need to volunteer as a trauma surgeon or land mine defuser, as your endless optimism can be put to the use of society as a whole. Heck, even the subject matter (childhood murder!) is one fraught with complexity, emotion, and danger. Regardless of where you live, every few years some story emerges similar to this that mesmerizes the tabloids in orgiastic thrills of fascination. Incarcerating pre-pubescent kids is a sticky wicket. How exactly do you rehabilitate a 10-year-old? If you put him in jail, the person who comes out will not be 10 years old anymore. Is that the same person who was sentenced? Is there a need to protect society from children the same way we protect them from vicious felons? Or are such children horrible monsters in the making?
Redemption in Boy A is a tricky issue, fraught with complications and rationalization and selfishness, as it is in other films exploring similar issues. We as the audience come into the picture only knowing grown Jack, a confused and disoriented boy let loose into a world cold and alien. He is kind, sweet, and courteous, but also bashful and constantly confused by things around him, having spent the last many years in jail—no women, no friends, no movies, no sports, none of the things that defines the identity of young men. He is retarded in the most literal sense of the word—delayed in emotional development—and needs to play some serious catch-up, but he does; he finds friends, finds love, finds happiness. And then, well…
The narrative is clever in its careful obscuration of details of Jack's previous crime until the last possible moment, when we are completely and emotionally invested in him. This is a dirty trick to be sure, but one with an undeniable emotional impact. Viewers are only given flashes of his past life as a child, tiny jumbled sequences that audiences must puzzle over. At the start, one is curious as to Jack's role in his so-called criminal past. What did he do? What role did he have? What happened? Once the answers are revealed, the biggest surprise is how little we care about the old Jack, so attached and enamored we are to the new one who's so desperate and childlike, so focused on redemption and salvation. Whatever his past misdeeds might have been, doesn't he deserve forgiveness now?
What anyone deserves, of course, has little to do with how the world works. We watch Jack slowly, tenderly, and delicately form a life, having never had one of his own. And, oh, every moment that ticks by in blissful peace is an agonizing one, for the more cynical and experienced of us (or those who watch the trailer) will know exactly what happens next. Jack's new life is a sandcastle built upon the beach, and the tide is coming in. Things fall apart for Jack in such a thorough and complete way, but the real kicker is how utterly lifelike and believable. Once the British tabloids hone in on young Jack as the murderous Boy A, things explode like split atoms. We lock up our criminals and tell ourselves that rehabilitation and redemption is possible, and once someone has served their time, the slate is wiped clean. The film has awful things to say about society and its needs for retribution, even anonymous mob-style retribution. Boy A asks its viewers to examine the notion of guilt and forgiveness, and the answers that come back are wholly unpleasant.
In terms of acting performances, there is only one person to mention: young Andrew Garfield, who gives a stunning performance in the title role. His terror, innocence, kindles, rage, and despondency is so visceral, so exposed for all that it is no surprise he was handed all kinds of awards for his performance; he deserves more. It is the performance of a lifetime. This poor kid will probably never top it in any film he ever does again.
There is something horrifying about Boy A, like slowing down to gawk at a car crash on a railway track, with a train barreling down in the distance, and an airplane plummeting from the sky all converging on the same spot. You realize exactly the fate you are in for if you keep watching the film, and yet you keep watching, powerless to escape the narrative as it unwinds. Nobody willingly puts themselves in such bodily and emotional harm, and it is a remarkable achievement of this film that audiences will willingly do so, in droves, if given the chance to see and experience an emotional crotch punch.
Shot on HD video, Boy A exhibits the standard presentation of this technology: razor-sharp crispness during outdoor sequences, horrible grainy sequences during indoor and low-light shots. Colors are washed out and muted in a steely gray and blue palate, which matches the cover art and theatrical poster (nice touch). All in all a sharp presentation: acceptable black levels for DV, fantastic detail and little in the way of compression or noticeable defects. The audio comes in a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, which is straightforward—most dialogue is center channel, the score is soft and gentle, and the rear channels only get to stretch their legs in rare moments of environmental activity. Boy A is a quiet, reserved film, and the presentation matches it well.
Extras are nonexistent. This is a barebones release. Not even a trailer to be had from the main menu. I do appreciate the English subtitles, it must be said; those Manchester accents can get awfully thick.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Do you like being kicked repeatedly in the testicles? Good. I have a movie for you to watch. Then after, if you need a light comedy to relax to, you can put on Requiem for A Dream.
Even as you're calculating the cost of large fistfuls of Kleenex required to navigate its torrid currents, Boy A is a powerful, inspired piece of filmmaking well worth the price of admission. Fierce acting performances, an emotionally turbulent story, and complex ethical issues will keep the film fresh in your mind, even days later.
The biggest surprise about this film is the lack of theatrical push Boy A received. This one could have been a theatrical contender with the right marketing campaign behind it. Forget renting: this one is a keeper.
Hey, if it were up to this court, Jack would get a full pardon. Well, not really. See? That's what I'm talking about. Emotional complexity!
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