Tennessee Williams once wrote, “Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person.” It is as though the American playwright intended this specifically for Boy A, a 2007 production that explores the life of a young ex-con after his release from prison. Under the fatherly guidance of rehab worker Terry (Peter Mullan), Eric Wilson (Andrew Garfield) attempts to step into a new persona – both on the official front and internally. With the new name “Jack Burridge,” he finds new friends at a new job and falls in love with the secretary, a woman who bathes Jack in affection in spite of – or because of – his social meekness and fragility.
The film weaves between Jack’s past and present, giving us deeper exposition of Jack’s criminal past with each flashback. We come to see how exactly Jack got to where he was today, how his marginalization in school years led him to be bullied, and how he befriended a child of the same age who took a much more violent approach with his aggressors. And in close-knit scenes at the climax, we learn what Eric the miscreant youth did – and whether Jack the freedom-seeker can truly escape. But it won’t be easy. Jack’s old pal Phillip is dead, and Jack is perplexed enough by his cause of death that he finds it hard to close the door of his past completely.
Garfield, who jumped to fame as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network and has recently signed on as the new Spider-man, is outstandingly versatile as Jack, projecting hope, anxiety, sadness and isolation. The supporting cast is also praiseworthy, specifically Peter Mullan as a man who believes so much in second chances that he confuses his estranged son’s name for Jack’s – a mistake that costs him more than temporary reprisal.
Jack’s own father is never fully shown; we only see his arm with a cigarette dangling from his hand, and hear his authoritarian voice telling Jack in no uncertain terms to leave his mother alone. His mother is also negligent in her parenting. Bedridden from cancer, she seems so paralyzed by her own mortality – and by Jack’s deviant ways – that she cannot bring herself to say anything more than “shut the door!” Hence, Terry is a personal saviour for Jack, exhibiting a patience that neither of his parents could maintain.
Despite the support, Jack is marginalized by a society that has nothing but contempt for criminality, a public that only extends compassion to those with passable offenses. The tabloid culture of the U.K. takes a hit here, as they brand Jack as no less than a demon. To them, simplicity equals convenience (and sales). Why bother getting to know someone’s private circumstances when assuming they are “evil” is the easier option?
Just like in Tsotsi, another highly engaging tale of redemption, the hero does not go directly from bad to good. He dabbles misguidedly in the only thing he knows of – questionable moral behaviour such as drug use, trespassing and physical assault – until, through one act or another, he achieves his personal absolution.
But what form this absolution takes depends on society’s threshold for forgiveness. South Africa might not blink much of an eye to violence when compared to an England that is fed up with miscreant youth and willing to lump them into one despicable category. In this sense, the film is antithetical to Harry Brown (https://criticalgrasp.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/harry-brown-alfred-stealing-batmans-cape/), in which an older Englishman takes to violent measures to stifle the unmitigated violence in the streets of London. There, grit is the solution; here it is mercy.
Perceived in the aggregate, Garfield’s character is neither Eric nor Jack. He is simply Boy A, a non-entity trying to make a clean segue from one world to another. Sometimes, though, stains do not go away. As his old pal Phillip once explained of his dream, “I think of a room with hundreds of doors, and they’re closing. The ones furthest away first. And then getting closer. Just closing, just banging shut. And I think, if I can keep from crying until the last one shuts, then it won’t hurt at all.” Just like Williams said, only in very personal terms.