I did not know, when I drove to the Sundance theater after work, that I was about to see one of my favorite movies of the year. Starred Up has been on my radar for months, since it came out to great reviews in the UK in March. And the best news? Playing at the Sundance means I can see it for five dollars on a Tuesday. Turns out such frugality was not necessary, because Starred Up would have been worth the full price of admission.
Jack O’Connell stars as Eric Love, a young convict newly arrived in an adult prison from a young offenders institution. Early. That premature transfer categorizes Eric as “starred up,” meaning he is a danger to those around him and should be treated with extreme prejudice. A volunteer counselor at the prison, Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), sees more in Eric, and convinces the deputy warden (Sam Spruell) to admit Eric into Baumer’s group therapy sessions. As Baumer tries to help Eric work through his rage, one of the sources of that anger – Eric’s father and fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) – seeks to have his own influence on the boy. Starred Up becomes a case of nature vs. nurture, as both men struggle to keep Eric from destroying his life completely.
Starred Up boasts one of the most naturalistic portrayals of a community that I’ve ever seen on film. There is not necessarily time for every character to be developed fully, but at the very least they are presented with enough personality to make them believable presences in the movie’s environment. Credit can be split by screenwriter Jonathan Asser and the talented cast. This is Asser’s first produced feature, but the intricately detailed world that he has built is immersive and impressive. From the opening moments, showing the admittance of a prisoner from the perspectives of both the guards and the prisoner, you get a great sense of the routines and politics present on both sides of the bars. It is the same kind of lived-in quality that you get in something like the first half of Casablanca – and I’m hoping that hyperbole will get me quoted on the Starred Up DVD box.
Asser lucks out in the cast, every member of which sells the vision he composed. Mendelsohn is the only actor I was familiar with prior to viewing the film (though O’Connell apparently features in 300: Rise of an Empire), but that cast of virtual unknowns (at least in my mind) makes Starred Up feel very real. The other members of Baumer’s therapy group (Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, and Ashley Chin) are great examples of characters we don’t learn much about (I didn’t know any of their character names until just now), but whose portrayals help make the film’s universe a believable one. If anything, the better known actors like Mendelsohn and Friend (who once appeared in something called “Pride and Prejudice“) sometimes hurt this authenticity.
Director David Mackenzie doesn’t make the same mistake. He wisely steps back and allows the film to speak for itself. Apart from an extended take or two, Mackenzie keeps the shots tight, letting his actors dictate the atmosphere, which can be alternatingly tense and humorous.
I’ve seen some criticism of Starred Up that complains about the final act, and how many of the events that occur would be better served by a season of television. Aside from the fact that such a television program was already made 15 years ago (Oz), the pacing in the second half actually serves the film’s verisimilitude. Attitudes and tempers can change by the second in such a volatile domain, so Starred Up‘s rapid developments are appropriate to the setting.
I don’t work in a prison, but I do work in a high school, and a lot of the time education professionals treat the latter like the former. I am not unfamiliar with the bias that quote-unquote “starred up” youngsters receive when they enter a hostile environment – hell, I’ve been the perpetrator of such assumptions in the past. I would never compare my life to what is depicted in Starred Up (though I kind of just did, didn’t I?), but I found the movie’s story of redemption through communication to be very effective. It’s a theme that ought to connect universally, even if the film does canonize the idea of a father-son relationship a bit too much. I guarantee you will not find a better family drama set in a prison this year. Though I don’t watch Orange Is the New Black, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.