Not Yet Rated

There would be an interesting story in John Crowley’s film of Jonathan Trigell’s novel Boy A almost regardless of how it was done and who was performing in it, but it’s certain that no other adaptation would manage to be quite as affecting if it didn’t include Andrew Garfield (Lions for Lambs), who turns in nothing less than a career-making performance here. Winsomely charming without groveling for the audience’s affection, Garfield presents an indelible portrait of a young man trying to figure out how to continue his life in the face of haunting secrets and a world that doesn’t want to let him forget it.

Once upon a time, the man Garfield plays was a bullied pre-adolescent who made the wrong kind of friend and took part in a senseless murder; he was known at his trial only as Boy A. The film starts with Boy A being released from the British prison system at age 24. He is shepherded into his new life and identity in Manchester as “Jack Burridge” by Terry (Peter Mullan), a gifted and empathic caseworker who acts like more of a father to Jack than he does to his own wastrel and resentful son. Right from the start, Garfield’s tentative, soulful awkwardness resonates powerfully with Mullan’s earthy compassion.

In short, efficient strokes and with a sure directorial hand, Crowley plays out Jack’s reintegration into a society he barely understands or remembers. Given an apartment, a new name, a cover story (he tells people his prison term was for auto theft), and a low-profile job at a warehouse, Jack seems at first like a shy alien in a brash world. Skittishly, he makes a friend or two at the warehouse, and even strikes up a relationship with a female co-worker (played with winning forthrightness by Katie Lyons). In one scene that comes closer to cliché than anything else in the film, Jack is even offered the lucky opportunity to make himself into a hero of a community where everybody is blissfully (for him) unaware of his past. At this point, Boy A could easily have tipped into mawkishness, with Garfield’s natural charisma taking over the film and turning it into simplistic uplift.

But by leavening in flashback scenes of Jack’s youth and the lead-up to the murder—which is only fully explained near the conclusion—Crowley keeps the reality of Jack’s past in the forefront as a constant reminder of his youthful sin and also foreshadowing the tabloid media and vigilante forces who have gotten wind of his release and are actively searching him out. Mark O’Rowe’s script also ensures that none of the halting steps Jack takes toward rehabilitation are easily attained, with his temper occasionally raging up out of a normally docile manner, and the weight of having to lie to his increasing circle of new acquaintances clearly weighing heavily.

For all the powerfully human sentiment on display here (particularly on the part of Garfield and Mullan), Boy A evinces a specifically tragic northern U.K. spirit that evokes the work of Shane Meadows or even Andrea Arnold’s Scottish-set Red Road, and will make it a bitter pill for many to swallow. The stabs of warmth that come through the institutional bleakness are intermittent and all the more powerfully felt once dissipated.