Friends can lead you astray and pre-teen Eric learns this hard lesson when his mate Philip convinces him to murder a young girl. Both boys are put on trial and deemed innately evil and forced to spend their teen years in prison. Now aged 24, Eric has been released, given a new identity, and thrown back into society.
Many viewers will see marked similarities in Boy A (2007) to the real-life case of two young British boys who took a little boy from a shopping mall. This realism lends a difficult moral tone to the film and it’s difficult to see if someone who committed such a horrible crime can ever be forgiven. Based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, Boy A poses questions with no clear or definitive answer. Is a child truly to blame for his or her actions and can that child ever heal and experience redemption? Boy A never answers any questions definitively but it does challenge the notion that a child could be inherently evil.
Terry (Peter Mullen) a rehabilitation officer believes that people deserve a second chance and he pushes Eric, now released and named Jack (Andrew Garfield) to embrace this opportunity for change. Jack must never tell anyone what he did as a child and he has to accept the fact that although he may have served his time and be a different person society is still the same. There’s no place for an individual known to have killed a child. Similar to the problems that sex offenders experience when released from prison, Jack must keep his mouth shut and embrace his new identity and leave who he was in prison to the past.
New choices, new life
For Jack to change and for the prison system to deem him rehabilitated he has to take a delivery job with a Manchester furniture business. His new life begins and he makes friends quickly – Jack is a likable young man. He has however missed out on ten years of pop culture and there’s humour derived from his inability to talk about TV and other societal mass media artefacts.
The pairing of Mullen and Garfield is the films subtle strength and they bounce off each other well. Mullen takes the father figure role (although this isn’t something he ever does with his real son) and he steers Garfield’s Jack through the numerous pitfalls that starting over offer up. The skill in casting Garfield as Jack, with his likeable grin and his charismatic presence, lies in the fact that it’s really hard to dislike him. His attempts to rebuild and start over are admirable and ones that viewers will find themselves hoping he succeeds at.
Terry is Jacks only connection and the only person that he can be honest with. This is an area that Jack wrestles with, although at first things seem to be going really well. The new job isn’t all that bad and for Jack working hard passes the time and he makes friends with the other staff at the company. His working partner Chris (Shaun Evans) provides some camaraderie and respite from the guilt and Michelle (Katie Lyons), a pretty secretary, becomes the love interest. For all respects and purposes, Jack is a well-adjusted young man – he does have a terrible way with the ladies however.
Jack and Michelle fall in love and here the conflict is introduced. Jack wants to tell Michelle everything about himself and his awful secret eats away at him. Terry however explicitly tells Jack that he can’t ever inform Michelle and once more the problems of rehabilitation are apparent. Jack listens to Terry and Michelle remains none the wiser.
Bright colours, dark consequences
A bright beautiful sunny day marks a dangerous transition in Jack’s newly formed life. Jack and Chris are out on a delivery job driving through picturesque country lanes when they come across a car crash. The pair manages to rescue a young girl from the wrecked vehicle (metaphorically the converse experience to the one that landed Jack in jail – different outcome though) and are hailed as heroes. This perhaps is the simplest narrative device that suggests visually that Jack is rehabilitated. Things don’t go quite to plan however and Jack’s photo lands on the front page of the Manchester Evening News.
This photo circulates far beyond Manchester and a London tabloid runs the photo with the claim that they’ve found Boy A – an evil child, now a man, roaming the streets disgustingly free. This scare mongering reaches Manchester and all at once Jack’s carefully planned and newly formed life is ruined. Jack is forced on the run and in a heart breaking series of events discovers just how cruel the world can be and just how alone he is. These scenes are the most harrowing and the film doesn’t let society off the hook – all at once it seems that the evil seen in Jack is present in everyone.
Boy A’s moral questions
The film really comes into its own with its retrospective accounts of Jack and Philip’s childhoods. It’s revealed that Jack can be a very violent man and an unpleasant exchange in a local pub highlights this propensity. He is a man capable of horrible acts but there’s the unpleasant feeling that judging him is some sort of judgement on us. From an observers perspective the destruction of Jack/Eric’s life is vindictive and unnecessary but when considered in relation to the destruction of that little girls life it’s hard to see what the correct moral response is.
Jack is a person that has done something shockingly violent but he’s also a man that has paid the socially deemed price – his teenage years wasted in prison. Does he deserve a fresh start? Perhaps not, but we also don’t have the right to punish someone in the way that Jack is punished – that’s what the legal system is for. Can a man be forced to pay for the crimes he committed as a child? Both Jack and his friend were well under 13 when they killed the little girl so it seems difficult to say that this was a conscious and well thought out act.
No solace or forgiveness
If Jack doesn’t deserve a second chance it’s because we’ve deemed some crimes as much worse than others. But where does that end? A crime is a crime perhaps and Jack has served his time. The cost however is huge and the forgiveness and solace that he seeks are unlikely to ever be found.
Boy A, directed by John Crowley and penned by Mark O’Rowe, is a hard hitting tale of working class North English life. It’s grim, noisy and intimidating and Jack is thrown into this world with only Terry to guide him. Both give performances that can only resonate, and the tough moral questions posed by Boy A are humanised by the pair. Really the main thrust of the film is forgiveness. This forgiveness is not just the burden of Jack but also a burden for us.
“Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.”