Papa Vinyard here, now here's a little somethin' for ya...
These reviews originally appeared at Righteous Film.
Jack O'Connell is Eric, a London-born, 19-year-old violent offender who's been "starred up" to serve in Wandsworth Prison for his crimes even though he's two years shy of the 21-year-old age requirement. His father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is also serving a life sentence in the same prison, putting he and his son under the same roof for the first time since he was a boy. Not wanting Eric to suffer the same fate, Neville encourages him to keep his head on straight, and to take part in an unconventional group therapy session run by a sympathetic volunteer (HOMELAND's Rupert Friend).
That's basically the entire plot of STARRED UP, YOUNG ADAM director David Mackenzie's prison drama, but it doesn't begin to approach the experience of watching the movie. What Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser have cooked up is something of a mix of A PROPHET and SHORT TERM 12, with Mendelsohn's volatile convict serving as the mobster mentor from the former and the group therapy sessions evoking the similar scenes from the latter. More to the point, like those films, STARRED UP exists primarily as two things: a character study and an examination of a certain environment, which in this case is the British prison system. Particularly for U.S. audiences, the film provides an enlightening view of the layout and politics of an English prison by putting us in the shoes of this angry 19-year-old boy. There are three floors in his wing, with the first floor being the least dangerous offenders, and the third reserved for the truly nasty, heavy-hitting criminals.
Eric is on the first floor, but he, like his father, is a foul-mouthed hellion, as quick to instigate a melee as he is to mouth off to the wrong people. Almost right away, he incapacitates a cook (half by accident), and when the armed guards show up to teach the boy a lesson, he greases himself up in soap, and makes a valiant effort to defend himself against their clubs while literally slipping right through their fingers. But he's young, so Neville and Rupert Friend's Oliver have hope that his volatility can be unlearned, and he can be shaped into a halfway-decent citizen before his release. They encourage him to do the therapy, which is less a touchy-feely sharing session than it is an outlet for the aggression and intensity that usually leads to mutilation and death outside their circle. Eric has a hard time toning down his behavior for the sessions, but quickly learns to respect the other members of the group, which in turn makes his dad jealous that he cannot assert the kind of influence over his son that he'd like.
While there's some stuff you've seen in prison movies before, such as the P.O.S. warden who has zero sympathy for Eric, tense race relations, and the casual inter-cell homosexuality (which Neville hilariously defends with, "It's jail, innit?"), but it's all presented in a way that feels fresh, real, and consistently humorous. There's a sense of gallows humor that pervades the prison, and even the violent scuffles sometimes close with big laughs. A big reason for that is O'Connell's performance; instead of playing the prototypical "angry young man", he somehow finds a balance between wearing his rage and aggression on his sleeve while allowing us to sympathize with the wounded young man underneath the violent outbursts. Even though he's 19 (only a couple years younger than O'Connell at the time of filming), he is confident, tough, and vengeful, and even his interactions with his father and the therapy group are free of schmaltz or sentimentality, though are still quite touching. We see why Neville and Oliver want to help the boy, and O'Connell's cutting central performance is a big part of that.
Friend's Oliver is the flip side to the same coin Eric's on. Though his family is from a nice area and has left him enough money that working is not a necessity, he volunteers with the prisoners purely out of a sense of duty and responsibility. He was forced into boarding schools as a kid due to his own violent behavior, and has a deep-seeded need to help out whatever souls are similarly troubled but without the advantages he had. That former bad apple side of him comes out only when directly provoked, and we realize that he's exhibiting the same kind of slow-burn, cards-close-to-the-chest intensity his Quinn had on HOMELAND. It's far from the traditional mentor role, but he still shows a mature, paternal side that the prisoners both appreciate and aspire to.
Mendelsohn as Neville has no such restraint. He has spent far more time as a prisoner than as a father to his son, and as such, he's a dark, tough-as-nails, angry sonofabitch. He talks a big game, but we see that he has a higher up on the third floor that he answers to diligently. It's primarily via Mendelsohn's body language that we get an idea of his sense of responsibility toward his son, and we see his softer and harder sides duking it out right on the actor's face. He wants to be a somewhat decent father now that he's been given the chance, but he doesn't want his fellow inmates to chew him up and spit him out, and a big arc of the movie is him slowly making Eric more of a priority than his own well-being. It's an absolutely masterful performance, one of the best I've seen from the consistently awesome actor to date, and is a big part of what makes the movie stand out from the plethora of prison flicks out there.
I didn't expect to be wowed by the film, but I was. The humor, drama, and pathos are all there in abundance, yet the film never feels like it's trying to impress; like the prisoners it depicts, it wants to make an impression on you without making you aware that it's trying to make an impression.
It doesn't currently have a U.S. release date, but Tribeca Films picked it up for distribution last year, so expect it on VOD or in theaters later this year.
LOVE IS STRANGE
As soon as I heard "John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play a long-time couple in New York," I was sold on STRANGE IS LOVE. There are a ton of looks at gay life in the city, especially on the festival circuit, but rarely do they revolve around older couples, and even more rarely do they feature such talented, underused actors as Lithgow and Molina. So it's nice to report that not only do Lithgow and Molina turn in terrific, lived-in performances, but the movie is a cute, subtle examination of the small, yet crucial ways relationships are formed, nurtured, and damaged.
Lithgow and Molina play a retiree and a Catholic music teacher, respectively, who have been together for almost 40 years, and are exhibiting their newly-legal right to marry. The priests at Molina's school have been aware of his homosexuality for eons, and he's a highly respected and beloved member of the faculty, but they consider his marriage one step too far over the line of their dogma, and he's swiftly fired. Downtown New York living being as pricey as it is, the two are forced to sell their apartment, and move in with whichever relatives or friends will have them (in the city that is…they don't even entertain Lithgow's niece's offer to temporarily crash at her large Poughkipsee home). Unfortunately, this means they have to separate, but their relationship remains strong even as they struggle to fit in with their new roommates, and their optimism and unrelenting affection for one another proves inspiring to those in their orbit, particularly Lithgow's nephew's teenage son and current bunkmate.
You can probably deduce from the plotline above that this is a shaggy film. There's no real tension or central conflict to speak of, other than the emotional strain of the newly-married couples forced separation, and to a lesser extent the emotional waves they cause and suffer from in their new environments. It's definitely a "character over story" film, and for that you need top-notch actors, which thankfully Lithgow and Molina totally are.
Lithgow, as the older of the two, is more talky and obtrusive than his husband, and doesn't understand simple things like why his nephew's wife (Marisa Tomei, always great) doesn't want him interrupting her work or encouraging her son's oddly-close relationship with his new friend Vlad (one of the small-scale ways homophobia inches in through the crevices of this P.C. middle-upper class NYC scene). It's more restrained than the traditionally over-the-top stuff Lithgow's sometimes associated with, but that wide-eyed, endearing quality that served him so well on 3RD ROCK and the like is still there in spades.
Molina's is the more reserved character, but has a consistently charming British affability that pierces through his awkward melancholy. He never lashes out against the school for firing him, and indeed maintains that his Christian faith is strong and undeterred despite the church's treatment of homosexuals, but his inner anguish is right there on his face. When a young man approaches him at a party, there is a sense of flirtation between the two, but we don't for a second question his steadfast commitment to his husband. A scene where he comes to Lithgow in tears over their predicament, but the actor (and his co-star) somehow remove all sensationalism from the scenario, and makes it a poignantly vulnerable, human moment.
The pair are separated for much of the film, but it's when they're together that it really takes off. As the actors revealed in the post-film Q&A, they've been friends themselves for years, and that familiarity matched with their own professionalism makes for great, highly watchable chemistry. Defying every cliche about homosexual relationships mainstream films tend to purport, they are supportive of one another, mature, and understanding, from their body language when they're together to the way they refer to each other hen they're apart. In one lovely moment, Lithgow reveals that he, unlike his husband, was unfaithful over the years, and the way that revelation floats away from the conversation is brutally honest and heartwarming at the same time.
Not to say the film is perfect, far from it. It crams in maybe one or two supporting characters too many, and one character (the niece from Poughkipsee) doesn't get the screentime to match the laughs she induces. It's obviously part of the gameplan to keep Molina and Lithgow apart for so much of the narrative, and it certainly makes us appreciate the scenes where it's just them interacting, but there were many times I really wished we could just focus on them. There's maybe a little too much emphasis on Tomei's son (played well by FRANKENWEENIE's Charlie Tahan) and his relationship with his friend, and there seems to be stuff with Vlad that was left on the cutting room floor (probably for the best). Still, the relationship between Molina and Lithgow is the reason to see this film, and it's totally worth it to see the two older actors play such warm, human characters in a believable and, yes, inspiring relationship; the rest of the film's stronger assets are just gravy.