Bullet Boy begins by the stylized violence book: a boy, locked in the boot of a moving car, uses a key-ring torch to get an idea of his surroundings. As soon as he starts banging the inside of the boot, the driver, Wisdom (Leon Black), stops to investigate, then lets him out. The boy is 13-year-old Curtis (Luke Fraser), and he’s locked himself into Wisdom’s car in order to accompany him to pick up Curtis’ older brother Ricky (Ashley Walters) from prison.
Ricky and Curtis live with their mother Beverley (Clare Perkins) in a state-funded flat in London’s Hackney, one of the poorest areas of the inner city. Beverley has prepared a surprise welcome party for her son, but Ricky goes straight out to see his girlfriend Shea (Sharea Mounira Samuels), join his friends, and go dancing. Cuts between the failed party and Ricky’s socializing neatly illustrate a tug-of-war between the major forces in his life that have only just taken the strain.
Reproached by his mother and probation officer for bunking off, Ricky contemplates his job prospects (summed up by Curtis as: “Can I have a hamburger please?”). It’s not as though Ricky doesn’t want to play it straight. But his loyalty is also tied to Wisdom, whose sense of macho pride is far quicker to surface. On the journey home from prison, Wisdom made enemies after he accidentally broke a car wing mirror. Ricky can’t help but be caught up in tit-for-tat retribution. By breaking up a fight that Wisdom will probably lose, he only obliges Wisdom to overstate his determination to win.
Amid such clichés, Bullet Boy offers a vibrant reconsideration of the inner city genre. Its palette enhanced by the ubiquitous primary-coloured wall paint of state-funded interiors, the film emphasizes the regulated patterns of urban architecture (rows of garage doors, goalposts stuck into a playing field like staples). This low-key backdrop showcases the rather more tumultuous events and relationships.
Although the relationships and events assume a chaotic complexity, there is one element that is brutally simple: a gun. On the day Ricky is released from prison, Wisdom shows him his new acquisition, and soon after finds a reason to use it. The film’s focus on only four or five days illustrates the acceleration of violence that a gun makes possible. Without the gun, animosities might simmer down, or be resolved in a fist fight, or Ricky’s attempts at making peace might actually work. Instead, for Wisdom, it’s a case of have gun, will shoot.
Ricky is less fatalistic, slowly realising that if he wants to escape the escalating violence and avoid driving Curtis in the same direction, he needs to get out. Leaning out over the balcony of his dismal Hackney council block, Ricky is face to face with the hazy, shining skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, revealing one of London’s most essential characteristics, its neighbouring and often mutually exclusive worlds. It’s a moment that recalls Dorothy gazing on the distant Oz in The Wizard of Oz. Ricky wants to leave (Hackney? London? It’s not made clear; as with Dorothy, “getting out” is more a metaphor than a plan) to allow Curtis to transfer his attention to more stable role models found in his mother and her Christian boyfriend Leon (Curtis Walker).
The only concrete source of stability for Curtis and Ricky comes from Leon’s religious outlook. With Beverley playing strong but ineffectual single mother, the father figure and the church (here, embodied in the same person) becomes a source of guidance in the family. Beverley experiences a religious epiphany during one of Leon’s sermons, walks up to the pulpit and embraces him. While she and he understand it as a giving over to guidance and love, it also comes off as a submission to patriarchy.
But if Beverley is stuck, Curtis might escape. His relationship with his best friend Rio (Rio Tison) mirrors Ricky and Wisdom’s earlier years. (The device also allows the film to avoid flashbacks into Ricky and Wisdom’s early teens—which in turn remains intensely compressed.) Curtis and Rio exist before the requirements of macho loyalty and the grind of post-education urban life make themselves felt. Curtis, however, is easily seduced by Rio’s daring. The gun catalyses action, putting Curtis and Rio into a potentially violent situation that seems almost a flash-forward, a look into their future that has come upon them too quickly.