[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Starred Up opens today in limited release and is also available on VOD.]
In movies, a father/son bond can be repaired in various ways: A game of catch, a cross-country road trip, or a death in the family to name a few. Starred Up finds a new one by putting the reconciliation inside a prison, and showing the attempts of a father to protect his reckless son from getting murdered by other inmates. Supported by excellent performances from Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Jonathan Asser have removed the schmaltz from the father/son story by taking two men who aren’t just estranged; they’re both violent and dangerous in a volatile environment. The filmmakers then proceed to further expand the story by offering the son different support structures and choices that further complicate his familial relationship.
Eric Love (O’Connell) has found his way into prison and is already right at home. He’s been through the juvenile detention process, and from the moment he’s in his cell, he knows how to construct a shiv, how to hide it, and other tricks of the trade. What at first seems like a remarkably lenient London corrections system is revealed to be special treatment organized by Eric’s father, Neville (Mendelsohn), a power player in the prison. However, Neville’s generosity is no match for Eric’s rage, and after an incredibly violent episode, the young inmate gets one chance to avoid permanent solitary if he joins a support group run by Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer counselor. Neville at first encourages his son to join the group, but begins to question that decision as Eric starts to find his own identity.
Mackenzie grabs us from the start as we’re not only impressed by Eric’s confidence when he enters the prison, but soon after he has an epic fight with the guards due to a violent misunderstanding. The way Eric prepares himself to fend off the guards, and the absolute beatdown he delivers against guys in riot gear made me think, “Oh, shit! They incarcerated Batman!” Story-wise, the scene provides Eric’s invitation to the group, but it also shows just how far gone Eric is when it comes to being a part of a community. The only problem is that Mackenzie makes the fight scene too good, and while we know Eric is a product of his father’s abandonment and foster care, a small part of us wishes he wouldn’t rehabilitate just so we could see that kind of action again.
Thankfully, the story remains engrossing as we watch Eric and Neville find an awkward reconnection that involves Neville trying to earn his son’s forgiveness, but also pushing him away from the prison system Eric has come to call home. Neville has a second chance to be a father, but it’s a second chance that came about because Neville failed at being a father the first time around. Eric now carries a deep resentment towards not only Neville, but to the world, and it’s in the group that he begins to find a measure of peace. Like the father/son bonding, the group could become corny, but Mackenzie makes sure that this isn’t some weepy, Kumbaya circle. It’s a group of hardened inmates who have found an outlet to vent their rage rather than let it explode in the general populace. The movie also makes Oliver a guy struggling to do his best rather than a fount of inspirational speeches and posturing. Friend plays the one gentle soul in the entire picture, and he always makes sure that we know Oliver’s strength comes from being present, not from being tough.
Friend provides a good supporting role, but a large part of the film’s power comes from O’Connell and Mendelsohn. O’Connell is a revelation as Eric. I was unfamiliar with his work, but now I’m going to be keeping an eye on every film he does. In Starred Up, he has the vulnerable looks of Anton Yelchin but the fearsomeness of Tom Hardy. O’Connell’s performance is sympathetic, charismatic, and at times even oddly comic. He also has good chemistry with Mendelsohn, who once again proves he’s a reliable presence whose unassuming demeanor hides a dangerous personality.
Underneath all the bravado and hostility permeating Starred Up, it’s actually quite a sweet and simple story. However, the real charm is in how Mackenzie has layered it. The film still has its flaws like the dialogue being so thick with accents and slang you could cut it with a knife. The support group is also somewhat shifted because it feels more like a unit rather than individuals. But these minor qualms don’t disrupt the hard-hitting setting that can at turns be shocking, funny, and moving. Starred Up shows that a father and son fixing a broken bond can be nice, but you don’t have to nice to fix the bond.