Director: John Crowley
Starring: Andrew Garfield
Boy A is one of those intimate, tightly-wound little movies that gets under your skin and stays there. Using a handful of characters, the film examines the sometimes volatile relationship between the legal system and the concept of justice, and forces the audience to ask difficult questions. The subject matter is difficult on a number of levels, but the film is easy to sink into and its characters stay with you long after the film itself is over.
Boy A refers to Jack (Andrew Garfield), a 24-year-old man who has just been released from prison for a crime he committed when he was about 11 and went by the name Eric. In many respects Jack is still a child, still socially awkward, shy and unsure of himself. He’s also haunted by the crime he committed – the murder of an 11-year-old girl – and the suicide of his accomplice, whom he believes was actually murdered. With the help of his social worker Terry (Peter Mullan), Jack settles into his new identity, getting a home and a job, making friends and even finding love with one of his co-workers (Katie Lyons).
The performance by Garfield as Jack attempts to negotiate all these new experiences is incredibly compelling. His uncertainty and trepidation is palpable and expressed both in body language and in speech mannerisms, and the way that he allows Jack to transition into a more comfortable and self-assured person is seamless. You can still see in him traces of the little boy, desperate for friends and validation and easily led, but you can also sense that he is beginning to take control of himself - not that this does much good for him when his identity is exposed in the news, prompting outrage from those around him, who believe that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.
Through flashbacks we see the events leading up to the murder and parts of the trial. Jack/Eric (played as a child by Alfie Owen) is bullied and friendless until he meets Philip (Taylor Doherty), an intense little boy with a violent streak. It’s Philip who initiates the attack on the girl and we never really know the extent of Eric’s involvement in the crime. It certainly seems, from what is shown, that Eric is little more than a follower who takes orders from Philip – but, of course, we’re only seeing this from Eric’s perspective and a story featuring Philip as protagonist might tell a different version entirely. At the trial the Crown argues that both boys are essentially and inescapably evil and that there’s no hope of either being rehabilitated. His argument seems cruel because they are, after all, just children and both come from unhappy, abusive households that have left deep psychological and emotional scars on them. To argue that they could never hope to be rehabilitated as they grow up seems unfair. On the other hand, they did kill another child in cold blood and her parents no doubt think it’s cruel that they should get to grow up and live their lives, experiencing the things their daughter will never get the chance to.
Boy A is an incredibly effective film, one that relies not on the shock value inherent in the crime (which isn’t shown onscreen), but on the complexities of human interaction and emotion. It isn’t without its flaws, especially as it nears the end, but it makes for an intense and engaging viewing experience. I anticipate seeing more from Garfield in the future, as he demonstrates here that he’s an incredibly skilled young actor.