Pier Pressure: Boy A?s young ex-con walks a lonely path.

Sign up for our free newsletter

In Boy A, a 24-year-old is released from prison, having essentially grown up there. He and a friend were charged with murder as kids and now Jack (Andrew Garfield) is set up with a new identity and a clean slate in Manchester. Nearly cripplingly cautious as he starts a job, Jack, whose birth name is Eric, learns to navigate the real world under the supervision of his nurturing caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan, so sure-handed and soothing you wish you could ring him up, too). In John Crowley’s film—adapted by Mark O’Rowe from Jonathan Trigell’s novel—Jack’s capacity for rehabilitation isn’t much in question. Shy, awkward, and completely unthreatening, Garfield’s ex-con is Anthony Perkins with an Adam Brody sheen. You feel protective of him when his new work mates take him out drinking; even when Jack gets into a fight to defend one of them, you don’t see shades of his violent past, just proof that he’s emerging from his shell. And therein lies Boy A’s biggest flaw: We’re not privy to the extent young Jack/Eric was involved in the killing of a young girl with his best bad seed, Philip (Taylor Doherty). Philip befriended lonely Eric and made him an accomplice in his sadistic hobbies, but even if Eric didn’t truly develop an evil streak of his own, it’s difficult to imagine that a lengthy imprisonment would have turned out a butterfly such as Jack, so sheltered he doesn’t know what a DVD is (though once he meets a girl, he can screw as cinematically as Brad Pitt). If you can get past Jack’s sometimes infuriating meekness, however, as well as the script’s unrelenting gloom—murder is only one black theme here, along with molestation, fatal illness, broken homes, animal cruelty, and accidental death—Boy A is thought-provoking and beautifully shot, the film Gus Van Sant wanted last year’s Paranoid Park to be. Though the film is in color, many scenes project gray, and languid camerawork intensifies both touching and tense moments. But the essence of the story is our capacity to forgive. Terry urges Jack never to tell anyone about his past; when the media help do this for him, even the fact that Jack reentered the spotlight by pulling a girl out of a car wreck doesn’t change people’s reaction to having a kid killer among them. You may not get a complete idea of who Jack is, but it’s really all about us anyway. —Tricia Olszewski