As we’re still in the post-SPECTRE/THE HUNGER GAMES, pre-STAR WARS movie release wasteland in Hong Kong, I’ve decided to continue my search for indie films that sadly never made it to our shores. Fortunately, we have options these days, including DVD/Blu-ray, digital download and legal streaming. One gem I recently discovered is STARRED UP from 2013. It stars Jack O’Connell (’71), Ben Mendelsohn (EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS) and Rupert Friend (TV’s HOMELAND).
“Starred up” is the term given to young offenders who get moved up to an adult prison because they are so violent. In STARRED UP, O’Connell plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old convict who looks like the boy next door but has a mean streak in him that runs deep to his core. When we first see Eric, he’s entering the adult prison for the first time. With his clean-cut looks and outwardly calm demeanor, he seems that type who will be used and abused by the other prisoners before the day is out. But within seconds of arriving in his cell, he fashions a shiv/screwdriver out of a toothbrush and disposable razor, and hides it in his ceiling light. Eric clearly knows how to survive in prison.
Eric, we quickly learn, is one seriously angry guy. Anyone who messes with him incurs the full force of his wrath, and that includes the guards. The warden only sees trouble brewing with Eric and he wants to move the young man into solitary confinement right after his first outburst. Fortunately for Eric, the warden is talked out of it by Oliver Baumer (Friend), the prison’s volunteer therapist, who believes he can help the new arrival. Baumer runs an anger management class that has curious methods and questionable results. He has had success teaching the other inmates how to keep their anger in check or at least diffuse it, but Eric is a challenge. He knows exactly how to press everyone’s buttons. Eric is clearly a sociopath.
Aside from Baumer, the only other person Eric will listen to – barely – is his father, Neville (Mendelsohn), who is also an inmate in the prison. “Nev” has been there since Eric was 5 years old and has climbed the prisoners’ hierarchy to the #2 position there. The father tries to reconcile all the lost time by trying to convince his son to fall in line with the social order but Eric is far too damaged to take his advice. Nev realises that the best he can hope for is that the other prisoners – or even the corrupt guards – don’t kill Eric before he learns how to fit in.
STARRED UP premiered in August 2013 at the Telluride Film Festival and has gone on to win 16 awards around the world including the Scottish BAFTAs (British Academy Scotland Awards) in 2014 where it picked up trophies for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Writer.
The film is based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s experiences working as a voluntary therapist at a UK prison. This is an uncompromisingly gritty film so if watching brutal violence isn’t your thing, you should give this one a miss. (I do think this film should be required viewing for teenagers. If this doesn’t scare them straight, nothing will.) O’Connell doesn’t hold anything back in his raw portrayal of an angry young man who never had a father and probably never had a friend. Now he has to learn how to deal with having both in an environment where friendship and kindness are seen as weaknesses.
STARRED UP is available on DVD and through digital download. Make sure it has English subtitles because you’ll need them to navigate through the thick accents and the prison slang.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:30.)
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