A film I missed at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Craig William Macneill’s The Boy is a startlingly raw portrait of a blossoming psychotic and how those hostile tendencies can be furthered if said psychopath is left to their own devices. Utilizing a minimalist approach in dialogue, The Boy succeeds on the shoulders of the film’s young star, Jared Breeze, who captivates and entrances viewers throughout many of the film’s scenes without even uttering a single word. Macneill also uses The Boy’s sparse and isolated setting as a visual playground for the titular character, giving us a brief glimpse into a troubled young mind that’s slowly slipping into madness the longer he’s forced to live out his childhood in his secluded surroundings.
Based on a portion of a novel by Clay McLeod Chapman, The Boy transports us back to the year 1989 as we follow a youngster by the name of Ted Henley (Breeze), who lives at the Mountain Vista Motel, a struggling little getaway that sees very little business and that’s run by his father, John (David Morse). The Mountain Vista has been in John’s family for generations and he hopes that one day his son will take over the family business. What John doesn’t realize, though, is that Ted has other plans—devious and deranged plans—and is looking to get into another line of work altogether—particularly, murdering folks. And soon we see just how twisted young Ted truly is after he’s pushed to his limits by a group of high school graduates who take their motel party at the Mountain Vista just a little too far.
While I may not have any kids myself, The Boy seems to feel like every well-meaning parent’s worst nightmare—what if your perfectly normal child actually had a psychopath just simmering beneath the surface and you never even suspected it? And that’s the beauty of Macneill’s film—Ted is just a normal kid living in a somewhat abnormal situation, so while viewers see hints at his psychotic and manipulative tendencies, his father remains oblivious, seeming to believe that his son’s withdrawn disposition is only a symptom of his isolated lifestyle.
Ted isn’t just a one-note character either, there’s something truly compelling about watching this kid putter around in his sad little life, dealing with roadkill akin to how other youngsters would play with their normal toys. He’s also a kid with a dream, to venture beyond the Mountain Vista and find his mom, who left behind her family in order to find a better life in Florida. Ted practices his motel manners as he does his chores and despite the limitations of his environment, the nine-year-old uses his vivid imagination just as much as any other kid his age. Sure, there is a monster deep inside of Ted that’s just itching to get out and destroy the world, but at the same time, he’s still a little boy that misses his mom and likes to play make-believe too. And for me, that juxtaposition was fascinating to watch unfurl throughout The Boy.
Breeze and his performance are front-and-center, and the up-and-coming actor proves he has an ability in front of the camera that seems to supercede his years. As mentioned, Ted doesn’t have a ton of dialogue in the film, but what Breeze does with his emotions, especially in his facial responses, is mesmerizing and wholly evocative to watch from beginning to end. Morse also does a great deal with the material here, never making his fatherly character too overtly stereotypical (which can be the case when dealing with origin stories like this one) or another abusive parent who fosters an environment of violence. John is kind but stern, torn between wanting to please his son but knowing there’s really not much he can afford to offer his willful progeny either, and Morse’s performance is quietly heartbreaking, mainly because he has no idea at all of what’s to come as Ted’s mania goes deeper and deeper.
Wilson, who plays a passerby with a secretive demeanor, also adds some great tension to The Boy once he’s stranded at the Mountain Vista, giving a performance that’s more in line with another indie thriller, Hesher, than what fans of his role on The Office might necessarily expect from him. Wilson’s character is shrouded in mystery, a mystery we don’t really get any concrete answers on, but by the end of The Boy it hardly matters, as we see how the character of Ted is able to use that clandestinity to his own benefit.
Intentional or not, there are sure to be similarities drawn between The Boy and Psycho, but other than a few key elements, there really is very little comparison between the two, as Macneill and Chapman focus their efforts on exploring just what would drive someone so young to become so dangerous and so malignant in their intent. A quiet and thoughtful story that is as touching as it is unnerving, The Boy is an unflinching and powerfully poetic examination of the human psyche that never passes judgment on its titular character, even after he’s unleashed his inner lunatic on the world.
Movie Rating: 3.5/5