The death of a child is always shocking on screen. Back in 1931, audiences watching the horror masterpiece Frankenstein sat in shock as the monster threw a young girl into the lake, drowning her. Watching the film now, it still maintains its shock value. John Carpenter's excellent 1976 film Assault On Precinct 13 sees a heartless thug remorselessly shoot a young girl in a brutal scene that I couldn't believe when I saw it. It's difficult and risky portraying the death of a child that ultimately represents the innocence that we all see disappear as we grow older. However, one thing that is rarely even attempted on screen is to follow the killer of a child as a main protagonist. Fritz Lang tried and ultimately succeeded in M, one of the greatest films ever made. That was back in 1931, and it's rarely been tried since.
Boy A stars Andrew Garfield as Eric Wilson, a young man recently released from prison, getting ready to start a new life under the new identity of Jack Burridge. Helped to re-locate and ultimately settle in his new surroundings is Jack's rehabilitation worker Terry (played by the ever-reliable Peter Mullan), who treats Jack almost as a son, having been with him from his troubled beginnings. Finding a new job and making friends at work, he becomes romantically involved with receptionist Michelle (Katie Lyons) and looks like he is slowly being accepted back into society. But Jack is hiding a dark secret from his past, and were this truth ever to be discovered, it would mean the end to his new life and the possibility of a lynch-mob reaction. His childhood is revealed in flashbacks, as he falls in with Philip (Taylor Doherty) at school and begin a strange friendship which ultimately ends in tragedy for both of them.
Boy A's main strength is its refusal to take a moral stance. It just tells the story of a mentally scarred young man who made a terrible decision early in his life that has had an irreversible impact on the rest of it. Garfield is terrific as an almost child-like adult struggling with the need to grow up quickly and face a strange and often hostile world. When he begins his awkward romance with Michelle, his character appears to almost feel guilty about allowing himself to enjoy it, with knowledge of what he's done and the possibility that the truth may be revealed. In a powerful scene, while Jack and Terry are having a drink in a pub, Jack discusses the fate of Philip in prison and wonders why he has been allowed to have a second chance. Garfield is outstanding as I mentioned before, earning a BAFTA for his performance back in 2008. He has come far since this and will play Spider-Man in the upcoming re- imagining of the comic-book hero.
The film has invited comparisons to the infamous 1993 James Bulgar case, in which two youths Robert Thompson and Jon Venables tortured and horrifically murdered the 2-year old child in Liverpool. For an incident that saw one of the most vicious public outcries in British history, the film has taken a massive risk not to stir up a similar controversy. Thankfully, everything in the film is sensitively done, taking time to show the backstory of the main character up to the incident. It also doesn't sugar-coat it either, building up with an almost uncomfortable intensity that tastefully doesn't linger. It also poses some important questions about the legal system, trial-by-media, and how old a person should be before they can take responsibility for their actions. It attempts to answer none of course, letting the film provoke discussion.
It's a fascinating, sad, funny, tragic and unsettling film that is well handled by director John Crowley, and strongly performed by the cast. If only more films would have the balls to tackle such a sensitive subject. Superb.