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2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Boy A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Long Way Home"
4 stars

Would you want to be judged to this day for every mean, spiteful and nasty thing that you did or said as a small child--every thoughtless thing you said to a parent in a moment of pique or every shoving match you got into on the playground for reasons that barely made any sense back then and which seem even more inexplicable with the passing of time? For the vast majority of people, childhood is a time in which you do stupid, cruel and hurtful things to one another--not necessarily because you want to be stupid, cruel and hurtful to one another but because you simply aren’t mature enough at that point to know any better. In fact, the whole point of that period is to learn the consequences of such behavior at a time when your whole life so as not to continue it into adulthood, when one’s grasp of right and wrong is more fully developed. However, what happens if you do something so horrible as a child that the impact of that action continues to reverberate for years afterwards? Should you continue to be held accountable for those actions even though your present-day version of yourself is (presumably) much different from the childhood one that actually did it? Should you be forgiven for whatever sin you committed or should you have said sin rubbed in your face for the rest of your life? Most importantly, should you be allowed to forgive yourself for those misdeeds or should you allow them to continue to eat away at you to such a degree that you never allow yourself the chance to put the past behind and get on with your life? These are the questions posed by the new British drama “Boy A” and while it may not be the overwhelming dramatic powerhouse that it is clearly aiming to be, its willingness to grapple with such issues in a serious and straightforward manner results in an undeniably gripping and bracing meditation on crime, punishment and guilt.

Andrew Garfield, last seen as Robert Redford’s callow student in “Lions For Lambs,” stars as someone whom we will get to know as Jack Burridge, though that is not his real name. Once upon a time, he was known to all as Boy A, one of two children tried and convicted for the shocking and senseless murder of another classmate. After spending the next fourteen years in jail, during which his friend and partner-in-crime died in custody under suspicious circumstances, Jack has paid his debt to society and is quietly and covertly being released with a new name, a new background and absolutely no suggestion to anyone that he is the same person who shocked the country with his inexplicable actions all those years ago. His caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan), is a true believer who genuinely feels that not only does Jack deserve a fresh start in life, he has actually earned it and he helps him get set up with an apartment and a job at a shipping company while also aiding him in his transition to ordinary life. In essence, Jack is getting the chance to restart his life from scratch to try to regain everything that he lost on that one fateful day. The important thing, however, is that he really has to put his past behind him and not let on to anyone about who he really is or what he really did.

For a little while, it appears that Jack, with Terry’s help, has actually managed to pull off the rehabilitation thing after all--he succeeds at his job, quickly finds a friend in co-worker Chris (Shaun Evans) and, after an initial bout of shyness (bear in mind that this is someone whose emotional and social growth abruptly stopped at the age of 10), he strikes up a tentative relationship with another co-worker, Michelle (Katie Lyons). He even manages to metaphorically right his earlier wrong when he saves the life of a young girl by cutting her free from the wreckage of a terrible car accident. It almost seems too good to be true and inevitably, things do begin to fall apart. Soon after his release, the British tabloids get wind that Jack is out and revive the story of what he did featuring banner headlines screaming “EVIL COMES OF AGE!” and including computer-aged photos suggesting what he might look like today, a move that causes several people with a vague resemblance to be savagely beaten by vigilante types with blood in their eyes and vengeance in their hearts. Thanks to the publicity surrounding his rescue and despite Terry’s well-meaning efforts (in fact, partly because of them), Jack’s secret finally gets out and he is shunned by his new-found friends, hounded by the press and relentlessly pursued by those who won’t rest until they have exacted an eye for an eye in revenge for his past actions, even if they weren’t personally affected by his crime.

“Boy A” is based on an acclaimed 2004 novel by Jonathan Trigell that was itself inspired by the case of James Bulger, a young child whose brutal 1993 murder at the hands of two 10-year-old boys rocked England thanks to the savagery of the crime(especially considering the age of the victim and perpetrators) and the equally virulent reactions of the press (who cheerfully covered it in the most lurid manner possible and tried to make a case that it was all the fault of one of the “Child’s Play” movies) and the public.
However, “Boy A” is less interested in the details of the crime or the motives behind it as it is in examining a person trying to put his past behind him in order to get on with his life--one of the things that is supposed to be the hallmark of a free and just society--even as it seems that there are forces around every corner doing everything possible to ensure that such a thing never happens out of some twisted notion of justice. For the most part, the film does this in a smart and admirably restrained manner that sees Jack as a flawed and haunted person who is trying to make some good of his life even though he himself is sometimes doubtful about whether or not he deserves to do so, an approach nicely conveyed by the quietly nuanced central performance from Andrew Garfield as Jack. Peter Mullan is also excellent as his devoted caseworker, a man who is so devoted to helping repair the shattered lives of the children under his care that it blinds him to the problems that he is having with his own estranged son, leading to a sadly ironic collision of his two worlds.

I do have one bone to pick with the film and that is how director John Crowley handles the details of Jack’s crime and his participation in it. Throughout the film, we bear witness to a series of gradually evolving flashbacks that show Jack’s unhappy childhood and his sudden friendship with another hard-luck child, Philip (Taylor Doherty), that is cemented when Philip defends him against a group of vicious bullies. However, when the film finally gets to the details about the brutal and pointless crime that they committed--the stabbing of a classmate who had the temerity to call them “dirty”--we see Philip cutting their victim up a few times in the most horrible manner possible (flashes of blood and sickening sound effects) but when it comes time for Jack to pick up the knife and continue the cruelty, Crowley artfully fades away without letting us see him actually doing anything. Now I will admit that there are many things that I would rather seen in a movie than a 10-year-old-girl getting cut up with a knife, but by cutting away from the scene after Philip (the one who eventually dies in prison) before we can see exactly what Jack did or didn’t do (outside of standing passively by while his friend hurts an innocent girl), I got the sense that Crowley was hedging his bets out of a fear that all the audience sympathy that he had built up for Jack would disappear if they saw him in action. Watching this, all I could think of was Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking” and how he made sure, after spending two hours creating sympathy for his convicted murderer and his plight as he faced his upcoming execution, to show us in unsparing detail the crimes that he willingly participated in that landed him there in the first place. By comparison, Crowley seems to be playing things safe here and while it doesn’t completely damage the film or its message, it does leave you with a slightly uneasy feeling that he his hedging his bets at the worst possible time.

Because I am recommending “Boy A,” a film that has the nerve to suggest that someone who committed murder as a child might actually deserve a chance for rehabilitation instead of simply locking him away in a dark hole for the rest of his life, I am sure that some self-appointed bastion of justice will write in filled with outrage that I would dare suggest such a thing, no doubt asking some variation of “Would you feel the same way if such a person killed someone that you loved and cared about?” You know what? They would be correct--I probably wouldn’t and if something like that had happened to someone I knew, I might well become consumed with thoughts of dark vengeance as well. However, I would like to know if they would be so in favor of violent retribution if someone they loved and cared about actually committed such a crime--would they still be eager to mete out their own version of justice or would they instead do everything to treat them with some kind of compassion despite the knowledge of what they did? If they are human beings at all, I would guess that they would lean towards the latter. If, in fact, they would continue to profess a desire for the former after all, it would seem to suggest that they are no better than those they are railing against.

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originally posted: 08/09/08 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/25/10 Dave Gripping 4 stars
1/12/09 J Cassidy Great story; beautiful cinematography 5 stars
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  23-Jul-2008 (R)
  DVD: 07-Oct-2008


  DVD: 07-Oct-2008

Directed by
  John Crowley

Written by
  Mark O'Rowe

  Peter Mullan
  Andrew Garfield
  Katie Lyons
  Shaun Evans

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