Movies about ex-convicts and their difficulty assimilating back into society generally begin with the prison release, during which the protagonist typically looks downright miserable. At first thought, I recall the opening of Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66, which ironically exaggerates the hopelessness of post-incarceration by adding a lack of a public restroom to the list of things the former jailbird is without. But at the beginning of John Crowley's new film, Boy A, the titular young man being turned back into the world is high-browed and smiling from ear to ear. And this change from the expected norm really drew me into the film immediately.
Perhaps the difference is that for most films about ex-cons, the hero doesn't have a very good chance at starting over. For "Boy A," however, there's a literal reinvention taking place. In the first scene, the young man (Andrew Garfield) sits with his caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan), and discusses the details of his release, which include his receiving a new home, a new job and, most importantly, a new identity -- he chooses the name "Jack." Also, rather symbolically, Terry hands Jack a gift, a pair of sneakers that unintentionally represents the young man's ability to comfortably run away from his former life.
What Jack did specifically before serving 14 years in a juvenile prison is a secret for most of the film, though it's clear from the start that it involved homicide. The idea, apparently, is to have us get to know the guy before we know his background, similar to the way his new coworkers and mates do. Of course, the fact that we do actually know he's done something makes us unable to completely wear the shoes of the other characters. Even if, as some of the interspersed flashbacks indicate, Jack was not directly involved in the incident that put him away, the goal to unite the audience with Jack's unaware new best friend, Chris (Shaun Evans), and girlfriend, Michelle (Katie Lyons), is broken from the start.
This isn't to say we have any reason to think Jack's a bad guy. From that opening scene, he mostly maintains his hopeful and ecstatic expression. And even when he's worried, sad or angry, he still has a shy, guileless charm about him. Maybe he exhibits some qualities of the quiet psychopath at times, but his wide-eyed curiosity and innocence, the sort of behavior you might expect from a boy who missed out on the highly experiential teenage years, continually overpowers any negative vibe the character might give off.
Perfectly portraying Jack's awkward winsomeness, Garfield is precisely the halfway point between Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan), heartthrob and space cadet. If anything, it's really the actor who carries the film and makes his character likable, despite whatever admirable qualities novelist Jonathan Trigell and adapting screenwriter Mark O'Rowe gave him on paper. Garfield had me from the first shot, but later, in a long sequence depicting his first night out with his new coworkers, his transition from wondering simpleton to spastic, drug-induced freak (his dance moves are the work of a true physical comedian) to mad heroic avenger, he found a place into a short list of actors I'm most excited about following (Garfield will next be seen alongside Heath Ledger and Boy A costar Katie Lyons in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus).
As for the other major actor, Mullan is great as usual, but as always his appearance only reminds me that I would prefer he be behind the camera as well (it's been a long five years since he last helmed the astonishing The Magdalene Sisters). And after imagining how much better Boy A could be as directed by Mullen, I think about other filmmakers, too. Mike Leigh or Ken Loach might have been better suited for the material, for instance. Coincidentally, I had just watched Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's The Son (Le Fils) a few days prior to seeing Boy A, and unfortunately for this film, I couldn't help compare it against that earlier, greater work, which also deals with a juvenile murderer post-incarceration. Unfair, maybe, but it still put Boy A into perspective as being merely an okay undertaking of the subject matter.
Crowley is almost adequate as a director, and I quite enjoyed his debut, Intermission, a multi-character comedy featuring a who's who of Irish and Scottish actors, but with Boy A his visual storytelling abilities are disappointing. While the film's end does entail a lot of ambiguity, there's also a lot of confusion as to what's actually occurring. So, instead of inspiring questions and discussion relating to the film's themes, thanks to the last couple of scenes Crowley will more likely have you asking, "what exactly happened?" and "was that part real or imagined?"
Obviously, it's difficult to explain the ways in which Boy A falls apart in the third act without providing spoilers, but even though the film is a narrative disappointment, it is possibly of interest for Garfield's performance, so I'm going to avoid saying too much. Just beware that after a good two acts, the story takes a predictable and rather forced turn for the worse (in terms of storytelling, not necessarily in terms of events). This may be one of those rare cases in which a projection snafu might be welcome around the 80-minute mark.