Boy A opens with two men at a table. The older man, Terry (Peter Mullan) seems to be a mentor of some kind and the younger man (Andrew Garfield) seems ready to embark on a new start. But we're not sure about the circumstances. The young man is told to pick a name and he decides on Jack. As the story plays out we discover that Jack had been tried along with another young boy for the murder of a girl. Jack, whose real name is Eric, had been imprisoned at the age of ten and now at 24 he has been given a new identity and released. As Jack, this twentysomething young man tries to re-enter the world but finds himself mostly at a loss.
Jack lacks social skills, doesn't get any of the pop culture references, and doesn't know how to become intimate with someone when he can never reveal who he really is (his caseworker explains that there's an internet bounty on his head and that he must keep his real identity a permanent secret). Jack is also haunted by memories. The past comes to him in flashes and nightmares. He may be moving forward but his past is clinging onto him no matter how hard he tries to shake it off.
Andrew Garfield in Boy A (The Weinstein Company)
Garfield (recently seen as the young student in Lions for Lambs ) captures Jack's awkwardness as well as his cautious eagerness to try and fit in. In some ways he may be too freshly scrubbed and too well reformed to be believable but his performance has an honesty that wins us over and makes us care. Mullan (a director in his own right on such fine films as The Magdalene Sisters ) exudes compassion as Jack's caseworker but he also basks in bit of pride over the makeover he has helped orchestrate. Since the film emphasizes the moving forward in Jack's life, we feel a little shortchanged on their relationship. We'd like to know a little more about their earlier encounters and what Jack was like when he was initially incarcerated.
Adapted by Mark O'Rowe from Jonathan Trigell's novel, the film maintains a quiet understatement as it explores questions about guilt and redemption, as well as responsibility (both in personal terms and in regards to society). Crowley and O'Rowe make their film a puzzle in which we have to collect all the pieces and try to fit them together in order to get the bigger picture. Initially Jack finds success in his new life and even love in the attractive form of co-worker Michelle (Katie Lyons), who seems to have both the sensitivity and the forwardness to bring Jack out of his shell. Jack even feels like fate has afforded him a second chance when he helps rescue someone from a car crash. All this builds a sense of hope as it suggests that people can change and can move on.
Katie Lyons and Andrew Garfield in Boy A (The Weinstein Company)
But Jack's act of good citizenship brings him into an unwanted spotlight. Similarly, Terry's seeming good deed of mentoring Jack proves to have unexpected consequences as well. We discover that Terry's son harbors deep bitterness over the fact that his father displayed more interest in a child murderer than his own son. In both instances, the film shows how good deeds can lead to ironic and unintended results. What's refreshing about the film is how Crowley refuses to tie everything together or explain everything that's happened. Terry conveys information that is contradicted by Jack's flashbacks but Crowley doesn't waste time trying to explain the discrepancy because sometimes there are two points of view and you can't always know the truth. Some of the characters seem capable of change and forgiveness while others are rigid in their attitudes and are quick to judge. Even in the final scene, Crowley refuses to tell us what happens and leaves us with an open-ended conclusion. But he gives us enough information so that we can deliberate for ourselves what happens - do we allow our hope to outweigh our cynicism, or do we let our pessimism prevail? And is allowing some measure of hope to survive a result of sentimentality while giving in to grimmer options a way of showing how realistic we are? Boy A leaves us wanting more but in a good way because we feel the material has a depth that can be further explored.
Boy A (rated R for language, sexuality, some disturbing content and brief drug use) is an understated work with some carefully shaded performances at its core.
Companion viewing: The Woodman, A Clockwork Orange, The Magdalene Sisters