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The first ten minutes of Starred Up consist of dialogue-free, near-procedural shots of a young inmate entering a British prison for the first time. The stone-faced, matter-of-fact expression on the young man's face during the entry procedures lets us know that this is probably not the first prison he's been in, more than likely not even the second, or the third. The long static shots that accompany him to his jail cell emphasize his isolation: He's one of the many menaces to society, an unwanted parasite the system has no idea what to do with. As soon as he's left alone in his cell, he builds a deadly weapon out of a toothbrush, a razor, and a lighter. It's not hard to see that this kid is very smart and cunning, yet he's stuck in that hole for a long time.
Our predictions about this mysterious boy sadly don't veer far from his reality. His name is Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), an ironic name for a kid who's starred up, a nickname for a youngster who has to be transferred from juvenile prison to an adult facility early, due to his violent and unpredictable behavior. In the case of Eric, it's hard to blame the system for this decision.
Our first impressions of him are of a near psychopathic, walking and talking powder keg ready to blow up at the slightest provocation. His idea of a normal social interaction begins with the occasional biting of a correctional officer's penis after being cornered by authorities for beating up another inmate. During the first act of Starred Up, it's hard to not only care about the protagonist of this story, but to not write him off the way the system already has.
However, a prison therapist named Oliver (Rupert Friend) sees something in Eric that can be redeemed, perhaps even rehabilitated. Eric's father Neville (Ben Mendehlson), a hardened criminal Eric hasn't seen since he was five, is kept in the same prison, and wants him to attend Oliver's therapy sessions. As a last ditch attempt at parenthood, Neville desperately doesn't want Eric to suffer the same fate he did, but has no idea how to relate to or even approach the boy.
Using Eric's therapy as the overall narrative arc of such a minimally structured story could have ended up as a Hollywood style convenient tale of redemption, or a melodrama that borders on a lame after school special. Yet the team behind Starred Up has no intentions of sugarcoating neither the brutality of such a place, not the incredible set of challenges that awaits anyone attempting to deal with years of trauma and abuse someone like Eric lived through almost every day of his life.
We expect a pandering approach that ends with Eric getting in touch with his feelings and turning his life around, complete with a successful application to a community college. For the more realistic world of Starred Up, half the story is spent before Oliver can even convince Eric to sit in on the group session without jumping one of the participants who might have looked at him funny. As far as pathos is concerned, the most we get is Eric thanking someone for offering him tea. That's as close to the Hollywood community college ending we're ever going to get in Starred Up.
Every single line of dialogue in Starred Up, especially the way inmates relate to each other during group sessions ring true. That might be because screenwriter Jonathan Asser used to work as a therapist in the correctional system and poured his experiences into the script. The way some of the scenes are executed feel so effortlessly real, that it becomes easy to convince ourselves that we're watching a documentary. The praise for the film's successful attempt at documentary realism goes to director David Mackenzie (Young Adam), who employs a raw, handheld visual approach without going overboard with the obnoxious shaky cam we see in many contemporary American indies going for a similar realistic feel.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Jack O'Connell gives an intense and natural performance for a kind of character that could have easily veered into self-parody. Ben Mendelsohn proves himself again as one of the most underrated actors of recent years. Rupert Friend does wonders with a character who's obviously battling his own demons, but is given almost no back story or clear motivation. His pain and reasoning behind his struggle to help convicts relies entirely on his expressions, and Friend does an amazing job at that.
Unfortunately, Starred Up is only available on DVD stateside, which is a shame, because this is the kind of low budget gem with an impressive cinematography that could have highly benefitted from an HD release on physical media. Hopefully Criterion will pick it up one day. The standard definition transfer found on the DVD suffers from the occasional aliasing and banding issues, but offers an overall clean and crisp presentation.
Two lossy tracks accompany this release, both in Dolby Digital, a 5.1 surround track, as well as a 2.0 stereo offering. Starred Up is a very dialogue heavy project with minimal use of sound effects and no music until the end credits. Therefore, there really isn't much of a difference between the 5.1 and 2.0 presentations. The dialogue can be heard very clearly, but an English subtitle option could have helped, since the film is riddled with nearly unrecognizable accents and slang.
Making Of Featurette: A 5-minute promotion piece where the principle actors and Mackenzie talk about what drew them to the project.
Starred Up is not for the faint of heart, or for anyone looking for convenient answers to a huge problem with pretty much any society. It builds an excellently executed, raw and unflinching story around someone wholly unsympathetic, and then manages to get us to sympathize with him.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com