The name he picks for himself, Jack, offers the promise of a new future, a way to separate himself from what came before. Yet despite his own hopes and his guardian Terry's cautious optimism, it is clear the stubborn past will be hard to escape.
One narrative strand follows Jack's adjustments to adulthood as an active member of society in a community that appears willing to give him a chance, while another revisits his troubled childhood and the inexorable march towards a fatal mistake.
Director John Crowley adeptly builds the tension in both story threads, raising the possibility that the Jack of the present may lose the new life he is building for himself as events from his dark past catch up with him. Inevitably, the gruesome moment from his childhood produces a narrative collision that throws up a mixed bag of ethical questions and emotions.
Boy A is curiously reminiscent of last year's Stephanie Daley, which took a tabloid headline story in that case, the story of a girl who abandons her newly-born child and rendered it into a human story. Both films involve knotty ethical problems in situations that touch a raw nerve. And both employ an objective yet compassionate eye that implies a neutrality above the issues. Of course, Boy A invests heavily in making you relate to its protagonist, keeping the messy details of his past from the viewer for as long as possible.
As with Stephanie Daley, Boy A is greatly dependent on the strength of one or two performances. Andrew Garfield illuminates each fractured facet of Jack's personality, rendering his broken, tenuous grip on himself with a raw, lifelike intensity. During the interval of Jack's incarceration, which is completely absent from the film, he has grown physically into an adult but lacks any experience and knowledge of society outside prison.
There's a skittishness, a cautiousness coupled with a sensitivity and lack of guile that's played to perfection. Garfield displays a scintillating intelligence not simply in playing the powerful emotions that Jack experiences, but also in the tiny dissonances with an unfamiliar reality. Similarly, Terry, the protective and proud father-figure to Jack is a three-note character, but actor Peter Mulan plays them very well. Terry's faith in Jack confirms our sympathies, and Mulan's performance amplifies our distress when tragedy strikes.
Even as Terry urges Jack to let go of the past and embrace the future he tells him he has earned, his own memory and guilt stubbornly dog the present. Yet ultimately, Boy A is not simply about the inability to escape one's past. It implicates a society unwilling or unable to accept a prison sentence as a debt paid, or give a second chance to someone who made a mistake, however awful that may have been. The film incriminates the sweeping, judgmental nature of the tabloid press that ignores nuance and depends on facile fear-mongering. This is a small film, easily overlooked amid the buzz of bigger-budget fare but Boy A delivers a searing drama of redemption.
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Peter Mulan
2008. R. 99 mins.