“They said I could choose my own name.” Seated at a table across from Terry (Peter Mullan), the dark-haired young man ponders the possibilities. Terry, meantime, puts a bag in front of him. Inside is a present, a pair of Nike “Escapes.” Terry smiles warmly: “Kind of appropriate, don’t you think?”
The idea that Jack (Andrew Garfield) — the name the young man selects — might be able to escape, to start again, to leave behind his own terrible past, is certainly hopeful. Terry is Jack’s counselor, and has guided him through a turbulent adolescence, during which the boy underwent intensive therapy and social retraining. Now freed at last, Jack looks to be the successful result of years of such sorting out. Shy, nervous, and unsure of himself, 24-year-old Jack accepts Terry’s gift and his assurances that everything will be all right.
Of course, this can’t happen. Boy A is the name given in British newspapers and court documents to the child Jack once was, the child who helped his best friend commit a terrible murder of a female classmate (a crime that is revealed gradually, though the suspense lies not in what he has done, but in how he will be found out, as an adult). Released from a juvenile facility and assigned a new identity, Jack’s sorting out is a perpetual and uneven process. Some of this process is conveyed by a kind of direct access to Jack’s fears and worries, in the form of carefully composed flashbacks (in which he’s played as a child by Alfie Owen). That’s not to say such literal evocations are necessary to convey Jack’s struggle: when his first request on his release is to visit “Philip’s grave,” you know his relationship with the sociopathic best friend was not easily resolved. “Was it guilt, you think?” Jack wonders about Philip’s suicide. “A way of saying, ‘Sorry’? Was he sick of the world?”
Terry doesn’t have an answer, trying instead to turn Jack’s attention to his new life: “You have to keep looking forward,” he insists. At his job at a delivery company in Manchester, Jack is befriended by a fellow driver, Chris (Shaun Evans) and seduced by the vivacious receptionist, Michelle (Katie Lyons). On hearing that he was in jail, the new acquaintances nod and move on to a next subject, believing “a man deserves a second chance” — if that man has committed a regular lad’s sort of crime, like auto theft.
In Jack’s tentative, earnest efforts to assimilate — to go drinking at the pub, try ecstasy, have sex — Boy A, based on Jonathan Trigell’s novel, begins to lay out an intricate map of how social expectations and limits shape individual horizons. As much as Jack wants to think he’s escaped from the detention center, he cannot get loose of the judgment, fear, and intolerance of those regular people with whom he wants so badly to fit in. When Jack and Chris happen on a car accident and rescue an angelic blond girl, the film tips into overt machinations. Jack’s seeming redemption, however, is dependent on the good graces of a doting media and consuming public: asked to pose for newspaper photos with Chris, he’s suddenly made aware of the fragility of his sudden popularity. Like a superhero, Jack is increasingly desperate to protect his secret identity, realizing that his new friends will never be able to accept his past, that they will see him as a liar, and worse, an inveterate monster.
But if Jack’s daily efforts are intriguing, the film’s thematic contrivances are flatfooted. Most conspicuously, his reintegration is complicated by Terry’s own troubled past, involving a son, Zeb (James Young), who resents his dedication to his work, his other “kids.” As soon as Terry tells Jack, “The past don’t equal the future, you’re entitled to some happiness,” you can hear the story wheels grinding.
Boy A is more affecting when it is less obvious. On one hand, it frames the effects of Jack’s history in acutely personal terms (his first sexual encounter, his fierce loyalty and childlike naïvete). But on another hand, his own actions are less difficult to decode than public expectations, shaped by tabloidy moralizing, the declaration of “good” and “evil” as fixed and identifiable categories. As Jack, so painfully inexperienced in such niceties, seeks consistency or at least some kind of logic, the movie considers what it means to be social, to negotiate collective surfaces and projections. “I’ve never felt like this before,” Jack tells Michelle. Even as she tries to smooth over his frank intensity (“You’re off your fucking head, you know?”), she’s also moved: she’s not known anyone so guileless. “It’s just starting to feel a little bit dishonest,” Jack worries to Terry. But the only way to get along, to fit in, Terry suggests, is to lie. For Jack, as for the rest of us, this revelation is both tragic and mundane.