Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Boy A (2008)

The sensitive and skillfully acted Boy A follows the story of Eric Wilson, who as a troubled child was involved in the violent murder of a young girl. Dubbed “Boy A” during the trial, he is released after 14 years of rehabilitation and given a second chance at a life. Eric, now 24, chooses the name Jack Burridge, moves into an apartment in Manchester, and begins to build a new identity under the guiding hand of his rehabilitation counselor, Terry ( Peter Mullan). Soon, he’s gotten a job, made some friends, and even begins dating a coworker (the excellent Katie Lyons). But Jack’s release has not gone unnoticed by the press, who have latched onto him as an example of pure evil and are on a constant quest to discover his new identity.

The early scenes surrounding the release are some of the film’s best, thanks to a superb lead performance from the relatively unknown Andrew Garfield as Jack. Garfield has the trickiest role in the film. He is, after all, not only portraying a man with a very checkered past, but one that’s learning to live again, and he does it all with the deftness of a much older actor. O’Rowe’s script doesn’t give him much to work with in the early running, and it would have been easy for him to come off as a non-entity, or, much worse, as outright dumb, but Garfield imbues the character with a kind of quirky earnestness that makes him easily likable. His Jack is quiet, skittish, almost pathologically shy, but it’s this vulnerability that almost instantly earns him the audience’s trust. Early scenes that feature him going out with his coworkers for his first ever night on the town (they think he was in prison for stealing cars) are some of the best I’ve seen in any movie this year (watch the sad, spectacular dance he does in the nightclub), and Garfield convincingly shows how the modest Jack could so easily win the favor of his new friends.

Along with Garfield, Mullan and Lyons deserve attention for their outstanding supporting work. Peter Mullan is one of the very best actors that no one’s ever heard of, and his funny, endearing performance here is one of the most skillful of the year. His relationship with Jack is more paternal than it is professional, (setting up an interesting juxtaposition with Terry’s biological son, with whom he is trying to reconnect) a feeling that rises out of the warmth and quiet wisdom that Mullan brings to the role. Katie Lyons is equally good as Jack’s girlfriend, Michelle, and the chemistry between she and Garfield is a big part of what makes their relationship feel so easy and unforced. Her role as the offbeat, understanding young woman that can see past the shyness of the male lead is perhaps a bit of a cliche at this point (I’m starting to think it’s a case of wish fulfillment on the part of male writers), but she rises above any weaknesses in the writing with a great deal of charm and vivacity, and the love story between she and Jack is one of the most natural and honest that I’ve seen in some time.

Crowley’s direction is appropriately minimalist, using a number of static wide shots and a cool color palette to show the industrial backdrop of Manchester, and he does a good job of preparing the audience for the inevitability of the film’s conclusion. But where he and O’Rowe do a disservice to their story is in the portrayal of Jack’s character. They clearly have their minds made up about how the audience is supposed to view their character, and seem to make an obvious attempt to stamp out even the smallest doubt that Jack may not be truly rehabilitated. Throughout the film, Crowley uses flashbacks to Jack’s childhood to slowly reveal what lead up to his crime. Yet when we come to the actual murder, he declines to show us what Jack’s role in the killing was, as though he wishes to hide any grisly details that might make us think less of our main character. I certainly can’t fault Crowley for wanting to spare his audience a horrific murder, but building a little skepticism about Jack’s character here and there would have done wonders to highlight and complicate the big questions about crime, punishment, and the possibility of redemption that Boy A is trying to play with. Making Jack a martyr, as Crowley comes dangerously close to doing, adds very little to the conversation.

That being said, it’s probably unfair to criticize Crowley too much for choosing to make a small character study over a social treatise, especially when the characters being studied are so well realized and elegantly portrayed. Even though it doesn’t tackle its subject as head on or as cuttingly as it could, Boy A is still a well-rendered, provocative, and heartbreaking story. It’s certainly a shame that it hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves, especially for Garfield, whose breakout performance is reason enough to seek it out. The acting on display here is universally superb, and the fact that Boy A is still one of the best films of the year despite its faults can be credited to nothing other than the significant skill of its cast.

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