Film Review: uwantme2killhim?

Two teenage boys let their online lives usurp their real ones in this relentlessly cautionary U.K. thriller that feels less timely than it aspires to be.

Based on 2003 events that also inspired a well-reviewed 2011 opera (Two Boys), uwantme2killhim? opens in the middle of the story's grim aftermath, though the aftermath of what, exactly, is at first deliberately vague. The general outline is clear enough: A teenager has been stabbed, two dazed sets of parents are trying to process what's happened to their sons, and the police are looking to wrap things up as quickly and efficiently as possible. Which ought to be easy, since between surveillance video and eyewitness testimony, what happened is never in doubt…until it is, thanks to the dogged Detective Inspector Sarah Clayton (Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey”). She's the one who forms and then sticks by the unpopular opinion that there's more to the story than a case of hormonal high-schoolers whose chest-thumping got way out of hand, starting with the mystery of how polar opposites wound up entangled in a relationship so intense that it led to attempted murder.

The bullied victim, John (Toby Regbo), stood out in all the wrong ways, from his Muslim stepfather (probably a terrorist, whisper his classmates) to his unerring knack for putting everyone's back up, while John's attacker, Mark (Jamie Blackley), was the stereotypical popular kid, an athletic, easygoing heartbreaker-in-training to whom everything came easily. Odds are they'd never have met if John's sister, Rachel (Jaime Winstone), hadn't been carrying on a spirited online chat-room affair with Mark, whom she asked to look out for her baby brother.

Mark, driven by a combination of fundamental decency and lust, agrees, and is relieved to find that John actually isn't so bad. In fact, they kind of hit it off, which is less surprising than it first appears: Beneath the stereotypical Breakfast Club differences, they're both bundles of contradictory attitudes, influences and unarticulated ambitions that haven't yet coalesced into mature personalities. And by the time things start to get weird—really weird, like Rachel disappearing after confiding that she's in witness protection, a sexy lady spy recruiting Mark for a top-secret mission, and Rachel's abusive boyfriend turning out to have some kind of puzzling double life—each is too invested in the thrilling folie a deux to withdraw.

There's more than a hint of 1984’s Heavenly Creatures—also based on real events—in uwantme2killhim?, which says less about creative cannibalism than the relentlessly unchanging stubbornness of adolescents and their discontents: Mark and John are seething with unfocused rebelliousness, ruled by emotion rather than reason, frustrated by the sense that everyday reality is a suffocating fog and convinced that adults—parents, teachers, cops—were never young and couldn't possibly understand what they're going through. Stars Blackley and Regbo, both significantly but not obviously older than the characters they play, are the film's core strength, despite long scenes in which they speak aloud what they're typing into their computers that would tax the skills of many older and more experienced actors. Their friendship never seems forced or false, even as it's increasingly taxed by the strains of Mark and John's secret lives—it's no wonder that both performances won awards at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where the film debuted.

The bad news is that uwantme2killhim? is less engaging than the 2005 Vanity Fair story on which it's based. After the bizarre and sadly sordid details of the real-life story are smoothed away, what's left feels both familiar and simplistic, and almost as dated ten years down the social-media road as, say, 1982's Mazes and Monsters, in which emotionally fragile young people (including a baby-faced Tom Hanks) get lost in the labyrinth of role-playing games. And it's hard to imagine younger viewers connecting with a story of love and lust that plays out in chat rooms when the way-snazzier Facebook (snapshots! video!)—still a few years in Mark and John's future—has already peaked and been ceded to old folks and their cat pictures.