Boy A is a British film that came out in 2007, but one I just saw the other night. Its title refers to a court practice of hiding the identity of a child defendant – Boy/Girl A, Boy B, and so on. After all, there is always the chance that they will be released as an older teen or young adult – out back into the world after being deemed “rehabilitated,” and no longer a harm to society. (It should also be noted that, while it completely stands on its own, the movie’s plot seems to share some similarities with the horrific James Patrick Bulger case in Liverpool of ’93.)
Andrew Garfield plays our Boy A, and he is amazing. I mean, indescribably so, although this did not come as a surprise. It’s intriguing to me that an actor who has excelled at so many smaller, dramatic, and emotionally heavy roles will be the new Spiderman in the reboot series. (I’m sure he’ll do a great job, but it’s just a whole other world of showbiz.) I hope that no one forgets how heartbreaking and impressive he was in Never Let Me Go (his performance being the best part of the film) and The Social Network (for which he was robbed a Best Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars), and Boy A, which he received a BAFTA for.
Garfield’s characters real name, as a child, is Eric Wilson. We first meet him during the opening scene of the film where he is about to be released from prison. His rehabilitation worker, Terry, asks him what his new name will be to embark on his new life. Already, we know one thing: Eric’s past life cannot be known; it’s a huge, dangerous secret. And then we come to know another thing, as Eric responds with grateful smiles and nervous laughter, “I can’t make up me mind!”: Boy A is innocent. Or, at the very least, no longer a harm to society, fully rehabilitated.
He chooses to be called Jack Burridge, and off he goes into the world of 9 to 5, new friendships, and a brand new romance (with much help from Terry all the way).
As Jack starts his new life and tries to neglect his old one, the audience does not. We are instead in a position where we see Jack’s new, stable life paralleled by his childhood and the crime he was imprisoned for. The reveal comes steadily but surely, the flashbacks eloquent and paced very carefully. We see Eric failing at school, his mother dying of cancer, his father wretched and verbally abusive, being bullied and beaten up by older kids, and then finally befriending Philip – a clear troublemaker with an unusually rough demeanor for a kid. Nonetheless, he likes Eric and he stands up for him. The crime that is committed is perceived to be carried out by the both of them, equally, but the flashback scene to the actual tragic incident doesn’t fill in all the blanks for us. We find out what happened, realize that Philip (as predicted) was the leader in the crime, but we do not find out which crime Eric is guilty of – assisting in the murder of a schoolgirl, or never stepping in to stop it.
The way the film unravels, it seems as though Garfield’s portrayal of the adult Eric (now, of course, Jack) is supposed to speak to his involvement in the crime. Jack is quiet, easily flattered, surprised by other people’s kindness and yet very kind himself, nervous but gentle, naive and literally sheltered, desperate to love and even more desperate to be loved. There is nothing about him that yells “murderer,” but there is definitely something that whispers “follower.” For an actor to go off of a child’s uncomplicated performance and come up with all of this, continuing the journey of this human being in such a complex way, is truly remarkable to watch.
Garfield may have us rooting for him, but the film is not as sympathetic. Though Jack starts out leading a very positive second life (in which he even saves a little girl from a car crash and becomes the town hero), the media gets word of his new identity and the whole country seems to be ravenous to snatch it away from him. The story shoots off from one about a rehabilitated child criminal to one of a young adult running from his past and from the public that wants him to pay. It’s a story about one’s privacy, and if one deserves it after being tried for a very serious crime before he could be considered a teen. It’s a story that makes us question if second chances in extreme cases like these are really possible, and if so, for how long?
No matter what the answers are, or if there even are any, this film – beautiful and delicate when it could have easily been exploitative and harsh – is worth the watch.