The ingenuous 24-year-old man-child at the center of John Crowley’s wrenching melodrama Boy A is a familiar movie type: a basically good person who made a tragic mistake years earlier and is handed a second chance.
Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Trigell, the movie is unambiguously enamored of Jack Burridge, ne Eric Wilson (Andrew Garfield), who is re-entering society under a new name after having served 14 years in a juvenile prison in Manchester, England. Given a job and a modest one-room apartment, Jack seems ready to make a go of it. The details of his heinous crime are leaked out gradually.
Flashbacks portray Eric as the only child of troubled parents: a mother dying an excruciating death from breast cancer in an upstairs bedroom and a gruff father who broods downstairs over a bottle of whiskey. Relentlessly bullied by his peers, Eric develops a friendship with Philip Craig (Taylor Doherty), a fellow outcast with a history of sexual abuse and a streak of sociopathic rage.
The movie’s depiction of Eric, who at the time of his crime was identified as Boy A because he was underage, doesn’t jibe with its portrait of the dewy, verbally stumbling man released from juvenile prison. Shy and handsome, prone to frightening nightmares, Jack is desperately eager to put the past behind him. His emotional lifeline is his stern, kindhearted caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan), who has a son around Jack’s age. The movie pointedly compares Terry’s alienation from his biological son with his devotion to his surrogate one.
Under no circumstances, Terry emphasizes, is Jack to reveal his former identity or discuss his imprisonment. The only information that his new employer at the delivery company that hires him has is that he served time and has paid his debt to society.
In some ways Boy A is a throwback to the sooty kitchen-sink realism of early-1960s British films by Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger, that portrayed a depressed, alienated working class teetering between rage and hopelessness in a stagnant economy.
In Boy A, Manchester looks much the same now as it did in movies back then. The identical brick buildings and narrow streets through which Jack furtively scuttles evoke time-honored film images of Britain’s northern industrial cities as forbidding, prison-like environments. Although shot in color, Boy A leaves a black-and-white impression.
Garfield’s performance makes Jack so endearing and vulnerable that as he takes his first wobbly steps, like a baby bird shoved from its nest, your instincts are protective. When he goes out drinking with his co-workers, and swallows a tab of Ecstasy without knowing what it is, you worry that disaster is imminent. Later, when he comes to the rescue of Chris (Shaun Evans), his closest friend at work, in a drunken rooftop brawl, the movie portrays his violent intervention as brave and not as a scary reversion to previous behavior.
Most important is Jack’s developing relationship with Michelle (Katie Lyons), the grounded, no-nonsense secretary at his job. Every step of that courtship, from gathering the courage to ask her out to sharing their first kiss, is a major personal leap forward. But as Jack’s heart opens, he longs to tell Michelle about his past and clear the slate.
One day when he and Chris are driving the company van, Jack spots a car that has spun off the road into the woods and saves the life of a young girl trapped in the vehicle. He becomes a local hero. But heroes — even genuine ones — are resented. So is the media attention that heroism brings. Society doesn’t forget violent crimes, even those committed by children. As flashbacks reveal Jack’s past, Boy A asks us to weigh issues of forgiveness, justice and human nature.
If the movie has already made up its mind that Jack is a good guy worthy of salvation, it implies that for the majority of people some crimes are unforgivable; once a monster, always a monster. The pill we are asked to swallow is a very bitter one.