When a 10-year-old commits a horrendous crime, whose fault is it? “Boy A” addresses the question but offers no easy answer in this painful portrayal of the repercussions of a childhood gone terribly awry.

Irish director John Crowley (“Intermission”) keeps the story elegantly simple, drawing minimal strokes to maximum effect — the boy’s home life, for example, is told in brief compositions: a father who spends entire afternoons in front of the TV, an ashtray and a bottle of whiskey at his side, a mother with cancer who’s too absorbed in her symptoms to pay any attention to her son. The boy (Alfie Owen) is bullied at school and ignored by his teachers, and when he fails to show up for classes, no one takes any notice. The only person who befriends him is Philip (Taylor Doherty), a boy just as lonely, but bolder and sneakier, with a cruel streak that he makes no attempt to hide.

Fourteen years later, the boy has a new name: Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield) — just out of a special prison for delinquents and gingerly trying to make a new start in a new city, Manchester. Terry (Peter Mullan), the social worker who has looked after him all these years, gives Jack a celebratory gift of a pair of sneakers inscribed with the word “escape” — a little joke that makes them both chuckle. Jack was lucky: He has grown into a lanky and handsome youth with a charming, disarming naivete that Terry obviously treasures. Philip didn’t have a second chance, having died in prison seven years earlier (whether by suicide or the result of a lynching is never made clear).

Boy A
Director John Crowley
Run Time 107 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opening Nov. 15, 2008

Jack insists on visiting Philip’s grave, but Terry urges him to look forward, preparing him for the future with a fabricated past (his time in prison is supposedly for stealing cars) and a job with a delivery-truck company. On weekends the two get together over burgers, and things go well as Jack makes friends with his co-driver Chris (Shaun Evans) and enters a relationship for the first time in his life, with the plump and maternal Michelle (Katie Lyons).

But Crowley makes it clear that for Jack, each dose of happiness has the bitter aftertaste of deception and regret — so much, that Jack wants to cave in and tell Michelle his secret. But Terry determinedly forbids him from doing so, and Jack’s personality starts to show signs of being locked into aspects of the needy, immature boy he was at 10. He gives no thought to the damage he may inflict on Michelle once she discovers his past crime. Still, when he sees a photo of his 10-year-old self in the tabloids (under the headline “The Monster is Set Free”), he shakes in his shoes and goes crying to Terry.

Events start a rapid downward spiral on their own, though, and Jack learns quickly that, despite Terry’s assurances of how he’s “paid (his) dues and earned the right to have a new life,” society is not so forgiving or ready to forget. Ironically, it’s Terry’s son — a layabout with a penchant for planting himself in front of the TV with whiskey and cigarettes just like Jack’s dad — who engineers Jack’s downfall because he can’t forgive Terry for loving a criminal over his own flesh and blood. There’s something Shakespearean in this fragile but bloody father-son corrida, morphing in the end into a tragedy.

With careful precision, “Boy A” traces the process of how neglect can breed hate, how resentment spawns murder, and the sneaky way in which the best intentions turn to dust.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.