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Karin Badt Headshot

From the Berlinale: 'Boy A'

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In contrast: Irish director John Crowley's second film, "Boy A" was hardly as cinematographic as "There Will Be Blood", but certainly showed sensitivity. A boy violently murders another child, a little girl he meets on a secluded path, and later, as a young man, is haunted by his deed, fearing (and yet hoping the contrary) that his past will prevent him from having a fresh start.

It is a theme that many can identify with, not just those who have murdered. How responsible are we for our misdeeds, which were understandably influenced by adverse circumstances? Crowley is careful to show the boy's lack of love in his home: his dying mother who shouts at him to leave her alone as she moans in bed, his father who barks a rejoinder. It is no wonder that the bereft boy picks up with a fellow derelict-in-the-making, the two bonding in a horrific prank in a cemetery, tossing a bottle over a hedge into traffic.

At times, this film risks becoming a well-meaning docu-drama, with the conflict too obviously delineated. "Boy A" begins with the boy, released from prison, choosing a new name for himself: Jack. The camera flirts on his face, showing his eager hesitant new smile as a freed man. Shortly thereafter, Jack gets his first job and then his first love.

What saves the movie is the director's attention to making the scenes interesting in themselves, aside from their sentimental meaning. We see the marginal boys picnicking over the train tracks, sharing food they stole in their pockets, a setting that captures well the liminal zone of children without homes. We have adolescents dancing on a rooftop, enjoying the sparks of sexual tension, the night brilliant in city-lights, until violence bursts: a scene that works, as the director himself wanted, "as a mini-set piece." We have the director's own favorite shot, the boy at the end of the movie, utterly alone on a desolate pier, as a little girl enters the frame and then leaves. In this shot, Jack dreams of being freed, exonerated from his past, a wistful fantasy that we know is going to end abruptly.

John Crowley is a poised man with calm blue eyes, who responded with clearly well-thought ideas as he sat for an interview in the third floor lounge of the Berlinale Plaza. A theater director for over a decade, he knew his biggest challenge--and interest--lay in making the story cinematographic. "I usually work with words. Plays are text-based. My previous film was too word-based, and I wanted this to be more cinematographic" How so? He rehearsed with his actors before the shooting, but unlike in a theater experience, where the actors repeat a predetermined emotional performance, he welcomed the camera as "the heat to bring the emotions out." He also welcomed the camera's ability to create reality, which is impossible on stage. "I had a steadycam follow Jack at the back of his head. Jack should feel he is being followed by the dead girl, and the camera does this. He is being followed by something ominous, even though he has positive life experiences. I also have many close-ups, the camera drawing close to his face."

I tried to have Crowley admit that this haunting film, based on the eponymous novel, betrays, at the end, a rather pessimistic idea of what one can do with the past, but the director nabbed me on the attempt and said his film was not pessimistic at all, but balanced between dark and light. The last line is, he reminded me: "Remember that." Remember that the boy had also done good in his life.

Still, the director had also noted that there is no way for Boy A to ever hope he can live an "authentic life" disguised in a "new identity". Despite love, hope and dreams, the camera that haunts him will follow him to the end.