Two new films about young people who either crave attention, or shrink from it, offer a change of pace this week from summer blockbusters. American Teen, which opens July 25, is a documentary that plays like fiction; Boy A, out in limited release now, is fiction that plays like real life.
At the start of Boy A, a slender young British guy, about 20 years old, faces an older man across a table, looking apprehensive. Asked how he feels, he replies: "I dunno." Perhaps, he says, like he's having a dream.
It's not a dream, but sort of a dream come true — though it comes with decisions, and he's not used to making decisions. He can't even make up his mind, in fact, about his name.
For a decade, he has been officially known as "Boy A." That's what the court called him when he was convicted of murder.
Because then, he was just 10 years old.
Now Boy A, who decides to call himself Jack, has come of age, and he's being released into a world that thinks he's a monster.
He doesn't look like a monster. He looks terrified. But as he makes a friend and learns to deal with things that he hadn't had time to learn about before he went to prison — like restaurants — he starts to be less fragile.
Then, something terrible happens — something that seems wonderful as it's happening.
He rescues a child — saves her life, is hailed as a hero, which gets his picture in the paper. And so his new identity starts to unravel.
Based on a novel, Boy A is carefully calibrated to explore the solitariness of a character who cannot let himself be known. Director John Crowley employs boyhood flashbacks, along with scenes of a romance Jack strikes up with a co-worker, to let you grow attached to him before society lowers the boom.
Jack, as played by Andrew Garfield, comes across as agonized, desperately anxious to get things right — something you might also say about the filmmakers, who have turned Boy A's very particular story into a scary, universal and wrenching social statement.
A Documentary Full Of Incident — And Questions
If there's a statement in the documentary American Teen, it escapes me. That title sounds just as nonspecific as Boy A's, but the film's Indiana high-schoolers feel less universal than generic.
Filmmaker Nanette Burstein follows her subjects through their senior year, showing us kids who seem to have been less intent on math and literature than on studying MTV's The Real World — to learn what kind of confessions work best on-camera.
For instance: "I don't have many friends, so it's always been really important to me to have a girlfriend. To be honest, I wish life were more like the video games. Because then I'd always get the girl."
That would be the film's representative geek-with-acne. We also meet a personable jock, an overprivileged beauty queen, a handsome heartthrob, and an independent-minded rebel who seems to have her head screwed on straight.
"I have completely made up my mind to try to stay away from anything like a boyfriend attachment," says she, knowing that such an attachment might make her rethink her film-school goals. "I'm trying to be completely ready to leave Indiana."
Naturally, the heartthrob then comes a-calling.
The students all say and do more than they should in the filmmaker's presence, which certainly makes them watchable — sort of a slow-motion train wreck.
But it also raises questions. What was the director's responsibility, for instance, as she filmed one of her underage subjects spraying hate-crime graffiti?
At what point does the filming of kids behaving immaturely become an invasion of privacy, even if parents signed consent forms?
And why is the most interesting student on screen — the rebel's best friend — not ready for his close-up? Reticent, not a camera-hog, he stays on the fringes of the screen, either smart enough not to crave unearned celebrity, or lucky enough not to get it.
At one point, his eyes brim with tears, and suddenly you realize: Where the front-and-center kids have long since grown tiresome, about this American teen — as about the camera-shy Boy A, come to think of it — you can't help wanting to know more.