I talk a lot about films about parenthood. Being a father has changed the way that I look at things, and because I that I find a deep connection in the exploration of parenting, of fathers and mothers and even children because, in many ways, I feel as though I can relate regardless of the situation. Even in depictions of situations that so clearly differ from my very own, I can find that kernel of universal truth that rings so clear.
I had no idea that ‘Starred Up’ was even about a father/son relationship when I saw this, but…wow!
‘Starred Up’ is a chaotic film, but not in the sense that you may assume given that description. It’s extremely focused and makes a sharp point at being so, but it absorbs the atmosphere of the climate with which it festers and it explodes, scene after scene, in chaos; controlled and lingering chaos. Within that chaos, there is raw, tender beauty; believe it or not. In fact, ‘Starred Up’ is probably the one film that has grown so much for me since first laying eyes on it. It’s a film that has rested in a way that swells in my heart, for it creeps up on you with a message that is so real, so invested that it makes an incredible impact.
That finale...my god.
‘Starred Up’ begins to tell the tale of Eric Love. Eric is a teenager with a very violent history, and due to his reckless behavior he has been ‘starred up’, or transferred to an adult prison. It is here that he becomes the center of attention for pretty much everyone in the wake of his storm, as his outlandish and abrasive attitude swirls around the halls and cells like a tornado. At either side of this tornado are men who want to help Eric in their own way. First, there is Eric’s father, Neville, a nasty man who personifies everything that Eric will eventually become if he doesn’t uproot his course and change. Neville, despite his temperament and disposition, only wants to see Eric survive his stay. Then, there is Oliver Baumer, a social worker who thinks that he can manage Eric and eventually help him change, reform. Somewhere in the middle is Eric, a boy with almost no choice anymore but to accept the help he is so adamant to reject, because leering over every shoulder are people bent on getting rid of Eric, who is nothing but trouble.
The beauty of ‘Starred Up’ is found in the moments when the chaos finally explodes to reveal hearts on sleeves. Yes, hearts bleed, eventually, and these moments will last with the viewer long after the film has concluded.
While I talk about the father/son relationship factor, and that factor is huge, it is also not exclusive to blood, for the relationship that forms between Eric and Oliver is almost like a blossoming adopted father/son relationship that rights all the wrongs in Neville’s approach and presents Eric with a perfected example of what it means to have ‘someone in your corner’. With both of these relationships building, breaking and rebuilding before our eyes, we are told a tremendous story of shattered love rebuilt in a way that gives hope to the wayward; father and son.
David Mackenzie’s direction is sharp, abrasive and impactful, but the film truly lives and breathes in the performances of its stars. Rupert Friend and Ben Mendelsohn swirl around the protagonist with such fiery convictions, pushing and pulling and leading the way; but this is all about Jack O’Connell, who delivers a star making performance that shatters all expectations. He goes there, just goes there so strongly, allowing the chaos to absorb him and propel him into the face of the audience.
‘Starred Up’ is more than a prison drama. This is a film about rebuilding family, about righting our wrongs, finding the folly of our ways and realizing that our actions can always be reformed for the betterment of tomorrow.