The British have a thing about underage sociopathy — we in the U.S. will puzzle and wonder as a culture about the latest school shooter or the very occasional death-metal bogus-ritual killing, but in tabloid-crazy England a news story of a child murdering a child pinches very powerful nerve endings, and the social wound of it is felt universally and lasts for years, if not indefinitely. While the American character, often amnesiac and marinated in ideas of personal freedom and frontier independence, tends to take these things in stride (does anyone even off-handedly remember the name of that Virginia Tech psycho?), the convention-loving Brits are commonly, in contrast, traumatized for good. (There’s a reason England is the most surveillance-saturated nation in the world.) This is the underlying dynamic of John Crowley’s adroit and heartfelt “Boy A” (2007), which is inspired at least in part by the 1993 abduction and killing, by two fifth-graders, of two-year-old James Bulger — whose name no one in the U.K. has forgotten. This is familiar territory to some degree, the docudrama recreation of an inexplicable crime, but usually the victim stands center stage. Here, as in Jonathan Trigell’s novel, we get to know only the perp, as he emerges from a decade or more in juvenile prison and attempts, with a new identity, to enter the world as an adult.
He (Andrew Garfield), labeled “Boy A” by the tabloids years before, chooses the name Jack as he enters a kind of felon relocation program in Manchester, shepherded by his grizzled, soulful counselor (a deft, though sometimes unintelligible, Peter Mullan), and for a while it’s the tensest, uneasiest fish-out-of-water film of all time, as Jack learns how to talk to girls, make workaday friendships, labor at a normal warehouse job, have sex, and so on — and all of it unfurls under the threat of the past. We don’t learn until the end, of course, what crime Jack was locked up for, but after it’s all said and done Crowley still doesn’t tell us how much of the killing he’s actually responsible for, either. So, sweet and likable yet potentially homicidal, Jack is something of a mystery, but Garfield plays him with disarming nakedness. It’s a beautifully physical performance; all of Jack’s queasy apprehensions are right on the surface, and yet Garfield gives Jack credit for being a reasonably savvy adult, capable of moments of confidence amid his nerve-wracked turmoil.
Jack’s acclimation goes so swimmingly he falls into a blissful romance with a lovely, zaftig coworker (Katie Lyons, whose wary eyes bespeak generations of blue-collar cynicism). But the danger of being revealed as “Boy A,” in a distraught society where his release from prison makes newsstand headlines, increases with Jack’s compulsion to come clean to his girlfriend. While the actors fume and boom, Crowley’s directorial approach is often adroit and visually evocative (lots of foreground context, off-kilter compositions, natural light), if a little restricted by indie movie reflexes. (I wouldn’t mind if there were a moratorium on grim folk guitar soundtracks and second act time-killing scenes of thoughtful brooding.) The movie’s an honest, empathetic dissection of guilt and criminal justice and the question of how long social persecution must persist for a juvenile crime. But it’s hardly abstract; Jack, in all his joy and agony, isn’t forgettable, either.
Tackling a more American crisis topic, Laura Dunn’s new doc “The Unforeseen” (2007) addresses the entire morass of incessant land development in the U.S. and its catastrophic outcomes and environmental poisonings, by way of what’s happened in 30-odd years to a single Texas park area. Simply illustrated, Barton Springs in south Austin was once an idyllic eden, a lush and grassy natural preserve fed by a massive and crystal clear underwater spring, and Dunn’s film recounts the long, arduous, fight-the-power campaign fought by righteous Austinites to stop a massive development plan that would have consumed the area and obliterated its natural resources. The community, through public hearings and protest, keep the back-dealing wolves and trickle-down prevaricators at bay for years, a triumph that was short-lived once everyone’s favorite decider, George W. Bush, got elected governor in 1994, and quickly greased the wheels for development to begin again under different auspices. It’s a seething David and Goliath story, with the nature-loving residents going toe to toe with wealthy businessmen so corrupt their legacy stands in Austin as shuttered corporate headquarters. But, of course, David doesn’t win; Barton Springs is being slowly clogged and defiled, as is almost every natural resource in the country, as the years press on and the heedless moneymakers buy the politicians and get their way. Dunn’s film is very well financed (Robert Redford, who appears in the doc, and Terrence Malick are co-producers), and terribly glossy. But the filmmaker delivers on the righteous dread that comes when contemplating what’s being bulldozed for the sake of millionaires’ bank accounts, and she has the activist edge to interview an utterly amoral real estate lobbyist (bragging about his role in defying public wishes) but show only his hands meticulously crafting a warplane model, complete with rows of handpainted bombs.
[Additional photo: “The Unforeseen,” Cinema Guild, 2007]
“Boy A” (Miriam Collection – Genius Products) and “The Unforeseen” (New Yorker Films) are now available on DVD.