September 18, 2008

REVIEW: Boy A (A-)

You probably remember ten years ago in Jonesboro, AR, when a pair of adolescent friends set off the fire alarm at their middle school, took positions at the edge of the school grounds, and opened fire on their classmates and teachers as they filed out of the building, wounding eight and killing five. The boys, then aged 11 and 13 years old, were caught, convicted, and sentenced to time in juvenile prison. Both were released upon turning 21, and as of today they are back in society, their exact whereabouts and assumed identities unknown.

Is this fair? Has justice been served?

Boy A, which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, is the work of the Irish filmmaking team of director John Crowley and screenwriter Mark O'Rowe (they previously collaborated on 2003's Intermission), who have together adapted Jonathan Trigell's novel of the same name into a poignant, probing parable that exists as much in real life as it does on celluloid. It's competing with Elegy as the most depressing movie of the year (or of the last few years, for that matter), but I suppose you could find bright spots in the strength of the production itself, which from the directing to the acting is outstanding across the board.

As with other just-less-than-perfect films, however, Boy A occasionally stumbles as it tries to navigate what is, on the surface, as simple a story as the Jonesboro massacre. Eric Wilson (Andrew Garfield) is being released from a London prison; we have no idea what he did, when he did it, or why. His uncle, Terry (Peter Mullan), is his guardian in the absence of Eric's parents, and he's arranged for Eric a job and a room in a friend's flat. They agree on a new identity, and Eric, known in his court proceedings as "Boy A", decides to become "Jack Burridge". For the time being, all we know is that Jack did not act alone, at least one person died in an incident, and the crime was heinous enough so that Jack initially requires police protection upon his release. He keeps a low profile and attempts to start his life over again, much like the Jonesboro shooters must have just recently done.

But it's not so simple, and as Jack spreads his wings, so does Boy A - slowly, gradually, and eventually almost to its own detriment. The use of flashbacks to explain Jack's trouble past is effective and engaging until it finally crosses the line into something unnecessarily horrifying. The relationship Jack has with a girl at his job, Michelle (Katie Lyons), is touching and true until it eventually becomes maudlin and melodramatic. And the coincidences and contrivances are clever until they become exaggeratedly convenient. None of these mistakes threaten to outright ruin the movie, but combined, they exist like those annoying stains on your favorite shirt that prevent you from fully enjoying your time inside it.

The more you wear the shirt, though, the more comfortable it comes, and Boy A is a near perfect fit at times, thanks largely to the amount of time we spend getting to know Jack. Even when we realize that his crime was the participation in a murder of one of his classmates, we somehow feel sympathy for Jack, and even when we see his violent instincts temporarily surface, we somehow feel sympathy for Jack. We
know he's had a hard life and we want to him to succeed this time around.

Ironically, however, we have no idea why we feel this way, and this is subtle truth that didn't bother me personally, but is still another potential weakness of the film. After all, what evidence do we have that "rehabilitation" occurred other than the charming attitude of this young man walking out of prison? It's the million dollar question that has no answer. Not in the movie, and not in real life. I have to admit I kind of wish it had been more directly addressed in Boy A, especially because at one point, which I've now seen is given away in the trailer, the story turns into Jack's "good deed" creating major problems for him. I guess this was just a way to drive the story to a logical conclusion instead of making any grand statements about his particular situation, so in at least that sense I'm comfortable resting my grievance about it.

Considering my gushing praise for Casey Affleck's world-stopping performance in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, you'll know that when I say Andrew Garfield's work here left me almost as floored it means he was something truly special. Knowing him only as the sarcastic Stanford student in last year's Lion for Lambs, I was enormously impressed with his British accent, enough so that I initially doubted it could possibly be the same actor. Well, it turns out Garfield was born in L.A. and raised in England, so there you go. I imagine award eligibility is unfortunately out of the question because of release dates or something silly like the fact that Boy A played on British television last year (for which Garfield actually won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor), but for a role that required nearly every minute of screen time, he was as good as anyone I've seen this year. Yes, he was fortunate to play opposite a capable cast of co-stars, but it's his picture above anyone else and in numerous scenes (one of my favorites being the entire sequence at the nightclub), he delivers the kind of career-defining performance that should get him in line for some major roles in the near future.

Of course, I said the same thing about Shia LaBeouf (one spelling attempt there, thank you) after A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and he's apparently chosen to go the route of action star for the foreseeable future. Hopefully Garfield will latch onto something of significance after his supporting role in next year's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (also known as Heath Ledger's final film).

If not for two key scenes in the last 20 minutes, one of which was the ending, Boy A might have risen to the top of the list of non-documentary films I've seen this year. The movie should have abruptly ended after a particular scene when Jack is walking down an alley, because more ending up being less with an almost ruinous attempt to tie some loose ends together at the end. Nevertheless, this is a movie that needs to be seen, both for the performance by Andrew Garfield and for our collective understanding of this true-to-life story. Jonesboro, as we all know, was not an isolated incident, and there could potentially be several individuals we interact with in our lives who were once known as a letter of the alphabet. Can any insights be gained by seeing their side of the story in Boy A? That's for you to determine. Come back and let us know after you see it.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 46/50= 92% = A-


  1. I was intrigued by Boy A when I saw the trailer several months ago, but alas it has not come around here and may not, due to the sympathetic portrayal of the main character and Jonesboro less than 2 hours away.

    As for the question of whether or not its fair to let these killers back into society with a clean slate, I'm sure the answer is case by case dependent. However, one of the Jonesboro kids was picked up on misdemeanor charges not 2 years after his release for possession of pot and a loaded 9mm, while riding around with his roommate, another kid convicted for the murder of his father the year after the Jonesboro shooting. Doesn't look like rehabilitation did too good a job in this case and it's scary to think that these two are running around unknown.

    I guess what I don't understand is if sex offenders have to register, why not convicted murderers, no matter what age they did the killing?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel, especially as one of the few people I know in Arkansas. Just for the record, I didn't mean to make any statement about that particular case - it was just one that popped into my head that had some similarities, especially the apparent lack of a motive.

    When I read up on it quickly I also came across that horrible fact that you mention about the Johnson or Johnston kid (whatever, it's not his name anymore). The devil's advocate would say he was doing nothing wrong and was using drugs to cope with his grief about his crime, but on the surface that would be too simple for me to swallow.

    Fair point about sex offenders, and now that you mention I'm a little surprised that registered sex offenders aren't targeted by renegade citizens more often. I'm not advocating this, just wondering - there are definitely some people holding grudges everywhere.

    The whole situation remains a gray area for me. I realized after finishing it that nowhere in my review do I use the word "forgiveness", which definitely plays as big role as anything else in this film.

  3. This opens in SA in December, but I think I need to make a plan to see it earlier, it just sounds too good not to see asap.

  4. In that case, here's another feather for your cap, Nick - there are some major similarities to your Paranoid Park...

  5. Interesting stuff, brings to mind Little Children and maybe more soSleepers.

    It really makes you wonder what kind of stable reform juvinile detention is able to provide. I can't imagine thowing away the key on an 11(!) year-old but it maybe be equally hard to believe this living situation significantly developed these kids into reformed adults. I guess I'm just reitering what this movie is about...

    Makes me wish it wouldn't be so impossible to have some sort of good doc.on the subject.

  6. That is something that I shouldn’t have to wait for….lol. In all seriousness, I will see it soon.

  7. Excellent review here, Daniel. Mine fits with yours in terms of what I ultimately thought of the film (quite excellent, though not perfect), but for somewhat different reasons, I suppose. For instance, I actually found the coda to this film one of the most heartbreakingly sincere and spiritually rich I've seen in quite a while. Depressing, yes, in a way, but also serenely beautiful on its own terms. It's difficult to describe.

  8. I've had the opportunity to see this several times but just haven't mustered up enough interest. Maybe I should give it another go.

  9. It is indeed a beautiful, brooding and heartbreaking film, and Mr. Garfield is extraordinary. At this point, I don't think there's any question it's in the Top Ten of the year so far.

    We can add Dan's treatment to the superb ones on the film that are out there.

  10. Good call, Tom. I hadn't even thought of either of those (and why did Little Children fall of the face of the earth in the last two years?). But would a doc answer the question you raise, anyway? Maybe. I don't know. I guess like Rachel says, it's case by case dependent. Impossible to know.

    Lots of angst in it, Nick, lots of angst. Haha, just kidding, I know I always get you with that but it doesn't mean anything. You and Matthew will probably have some fresh things to say after you see it, which will hopefully be asap.

    While I won't disagree with that reaction, Alexander, I think I was just hoping it wouldn't HAVE to come to that. This was one of those movies I was hoping would have broken off on its own path at the last minute. Of course it had some obligation to stay loyal to the book, and changing the ending here would have left even MORE open to interpretation and analysis.

    Thank you, Sam. Your recommendation of this one early on definitely paid off. I can see this one landing on my top 10 list, depending of course on how the upcoming Oscar fare delivers.

  11. Sweet damnit, damnity damn I want to see this movie so bad.

  12. For your sake, I hope you do soon!

  13. Okay Danny, finally saw it, and yeah, I loved it. You were right. It was gripping and tender and just fantastic, even if the final scene was a little contrived. Garfield is amazing. And I loved the score and the cinematography, as well as the questions the film itself poses without ever having to articulate them. Riveting to say the very least. I hope I find the time to review it.

  14. Thanks, Nick, and thanks for dusting this one off. You made me read it over and find a couple mistakes! I think this is one of my favorite reviews, though, and definitely one of the Top 10 movies I saw this year. It should land somewhere on the list, and Garfield has remained at the top of the acting performances I've seen. If not for that dang ending...

  15. What do you know, I wrote my review and just read yours – very nice man. I too found Garfield amazing, much like I did Shia in AGTRYS, and I really liked “Boy A” for the most part, but there were one or two things that will stop me from giving it the 4 stars I want to give it so badly – and one of them is the ending. Which is a damn shame, because it’s a (mostly) perfect film. 3.5 it shall get from me, which sucks. One thing I did love about the final scene was Garfield walking along that pier/deck thing with the view of the beach and the Ferris wheel in the background, it was gorgeous.

  16. Well I'll be catching up to it soon, Nick, I'm still all the way back at your Encounters review.

    Like I said in the review, I think it should have ended when he was limping down the alley. No easy answers, off into obscurity, just like real life. Of course, I have to remember this was based on a book, so in some sense it had to be faithful to the conclusion. Just wasn't a very satisfactory one.

  17. To get the point of this film, and the ending, the viewer needs to know about the James Bulger case and the child-killer Jon Venables who the character is based upon. The British had never known such a case before and their reaction was incredible. Shocked and upset, they were rioting in the streets and attacking the families of all who were involved - even the innocent who had been interviewed and attacking the boys van when they went to court. It was a lynch-mob. This film makes the viewer question all those strong feelings and in the end, instead of wanting Venables dead, we strangely want him to live. This makes the ending of the film so hugely tragic, disturbing and effective.

  18. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Anonymous. Glad to see this post dusted off because I don't think Boy A was appreciated as much as it should have been, particularly Andrew Garfield's performance. He's almost a household name now thanks to The Social Network and the upcoming Spider-Man sequel, but to me this remains his best work to date.

    To your point, I didn't know anything about this story beforehand but you make a really interesting point about how the film paints Jack as a sympathetic character.


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