John Crowley's humanistic drama, Boy A, is such a puissant treatment of an unfledged, terribly troubled youth, impressively buoyed by its central performance, and crafted with such incisive empathy, that it slowly registers as one of the most unshakable films of the year. That central performance is by Andrew Garfield, who faced off against Robert Redford in the actor-director's 2007 Lions for Lambs, quite memorable in a mostly forgettable film, and he evidently had a small role in the early 2008 release, The Other Boleyn Girl, both seen by the author of this blog. Here Garfield is directed by John Crowley, who strips the actor of any possible gimmick or crutch, resulting in one of the finest performances of the year. Yes, naysayers will point to Garfield routinely breaking down and crying in the film, but it remains a mystery how else this performance could have been approached. Garfield's character is a deeply wounded individual, and more than just that, his maturity and development have been stalled by his ten-year incarceration for murdering a girl with his friend, the thuggish Philip Craig (Taylor Doherty).
Garfield's character's name before the murder was Eric Wilson, played with glum blankness by child actor Aflie Owen. When he is released, he is given the opportunity by his remarkably supportive uncle Terry (Peter Mullan) to give himself a new name because he's now a new person. Boy A begins quite slowly, in a fairly disorientating manner, as Terry congratulates the twenty-four year old for reaching the end of this specific part of his life, so dramatically altering his being so greatly so as to change his very self. The transitory name for Eric was “Boy A,” Philip being “Boy B,” and Crowley's film, titled as such, seems to suggest that for Eric, the journey from Eric to Boy A to Jack Burridge—the name he settles on—is forever defined by that middle period, one the film only takes occasional looks at, but hints at strongly as being hellishly nightmarish.
Crowley's film works on two main parallel narrative tracks, with the greater focus dedicated to Jack's story of acclimation to the outside world, his struggles with suppressed guilt, pent-up anger, humiliation, self-hatred and his standing as a social pariah. Terry tells Jack that he should never tell anyone about his past; when Jack applies for a job at a delivery agency he informs everyone that his time in prison was the result of his carjacking. The other narrative is propelled by Jack's memories of his life as Eric, befriending Philip after watching Philip fearlessly confronting and beating a group of older bullies who have repeatedly assaulted Eric. A flashback scene concludes with Eric asking Philip, “What's your name?” The cut to a shot of the words on a grave Jack and Terry are looking at on a cemetery lot provides the answer, while allowing the audience to understand that Philip is dead. Terry believes the official story, which has it that Philip committed suicide. Always shoring up Jack's self-esteem and belief in his own value as a person, Terry utilizes this special moment to illustrate the gulf between Jack (Eric) and Philip. “He couldn't live with it,” Terry says. “He couldn't face it, and change. He couldn't handle it. That's the difference between you and him.” Jack, however, believes Philip was murdered. This belief supplies fodder for clammy, eerie dreams of a murder like that which Jack believes befell Philip to finally find him.
Gradually, Jack begins to open up, little by little. Boy A is only 100 minutes and in its greater narrative thread covers approximately only a month of time, but the trip Jack takes is arduous, overwhelming and morally perilous in every imaginable way. His is the loneliest journey—though made marginally less so by his genuine, providential friendship with Terry—and Crowley unerringly displays a certain gravity in conveying that solemn, glacial advancement, almost endlessly marked by pain and despondency, it is primarily only in the little victories early on that Jack can find any solace.
Those small victories are later replaced with greater ones, as Jack befriends a coworker named Chris (Shaun Evans), for whom he intervenes at a most crucial moment. Seeking self-absolution and mindlessness, Jack's yearning for rebirth comes in an ungainly, organic way. Temporarily submitting to the possibilities of losing himself at a nightclub, he partakes in drugs, namely ecstacy, at a party, becoming a solitary figure in the corner, his singular figure haphazardly, hypnotically spiraling and twirling, representing a violent paroxysmal outburst, followed by his instinctive heroics for Chris's sake on the roof of the nightclub. Those heroics are followed later when Jack spots a car that has plowed through a concrete road barrier, running down with Chris to rescue whoever can be saved. A little girl is still alive, and Jack and Chris extract her from the automobile. Can such an act somehow mitigate or possibly even represent a certain commensurate undertaking in the interest of atonement?
Jack becomes sweet on a young lady at the delivery outlet, nicknamed “the White Whale” by the male coworkers due to her considerable largeness. Her name is Michelle (Katie Lyons), and she's sweet on Jack. However, Jack is tepid, drudging away at work, almost cenobitically remaining outside of her orbit as much as possible. Chris finally confronts Jack about his shyness and almost orders him to go ahead and ask Michelle out. The relationship that ignites between he and Michelle is scintillating in its truthfulness and palpably-rendered pathos. Certain scenes between these two are aching in their coupling of sweet delirium and impending lancing, the symmetrically perfect beauty and fleeting miraculousness of it resembling one of the bubbles that floats from the shared bathtub as Jack snaps pictures of Michelle.
Adapted from Jonathan Trigell's novel by Mark O'Rowe, Boy A, both the novel and film, are evidently loosely inspired by the real-life case of two male youths seen carrying away a child on a mall's security video camera, who was later found dead. In an instance of perhaps staying rigorously faithful to the novel and its intentions, O'Rowe and Crowley elect to not actually show the viewer what must have been a hideously revolting scene of wantonly sadistic murder. Only very late in the film does it portray the events leading to the actual murder, and then it cuts away just as the boys are about to go ahead with it. Questions concerning taste and discrimination are valid, but in a film this nakedly, rawly personal, intensely drawn with chilly, overcast hues and addling close-ups and often shaky, verite sequences juxtaposed against conservatively-structured and -composed cinematic lyrics of mise-en-scene, a moment not unlike that of viewing Sean Penn's Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking gleefully and rapaciously exhibiting no quarter to his prey would have made the entire picture greater wholeness. As it stands, Crowley's commendable humanism finds itself saddled with appearing overtly sympathetic—by exercising an uncharacteristic moment of emotional, spiritual and intellectual subterfuge, Crowley's picture allows itself too much, while forfeiting a great deal at exactly the same time. While many will contend that watching Eric and Philip monstrously snuffing the life out of the girl would be going too far, and is not comparable to the actions of an adult like Poncelet, no matter what one's positions on such issues are, the matter remains that the film's encircling honesty finally finds a crack in its circumferential body.
Nevertheless, the psychology behind Philip and Eric is not shallow, nor is it especially detailed. We are given only glimpses of what appears to be an unhappy home life for Eric, whose mother is dying of breast cancer as the film follows his tale. One day, as the two are lying peaceably on a green knoll in the afternoon hours, Philip reveals that his brother sexually molests and rapes him. Philip describes the physical pain of anal rape; the psychological trauma entailed is too vast for his mind to comprehend, and in its own way has contributed to his ceaselessly angry personality. Later Philip and Eric fish together at a creek. Philip has hooked something, which turns out to be a large eel. When he beats it in the head with a nail that has pierced a small plank of wood, is he acting out against an approximate phallic symbol, living and breathing on the ground as he grinningly attacks it?
Boy A is Jack's story, however, and as his life as deliveryman, friend, boyfriend, nephew and parolee becomes threatened, the suspense of the picture becomes frighteningly involuted, the context askew by Crowley's persuasively immediate filmmaking. Garfield's performance is informed by the pathetic reality of his character; while it's rewarding to watch him grow and blossom as he tenaciously fights to discard Eric and leave him in the past, it is also vital to remember just how tragically delayed and weighed-down this person's life has been. As such, it's a tour de force, never striking a false note, always finely tuned and flawlessly compelling.
The passage that brings this film to its harrowing, blisteringly unforgettable conclusion is at first glance an unremittingly dire creation. Yet as this is a tale of soulful reincarnation, Crowley allows the film to finally end with searingly numinous ramifications. Beyond the social issues brought to the fore by this work, the human element shapes it with unmistakably mortal concerns, spurred by nearly irreproachable curiosity and care.