Andrew Garfield’s work as Spider-Man is launching him to stratospheric heights has the unfortunate side effect of keeping him from making more films like Boy A, the 2007 British TV movie that got a cinematic release in the States largely on the back of his impressive performance. Garfield is young—only 30—and still bursting with potential, but he’s also made precisely zero non-Spider-Man films since the release of The Social Network. In Boy A, he took on a role that would make most Brits recoil in horror just to think about, and invested it with real pathos and reliability. In doing so, he announced his huge potential as an actor, potential that he’s still ready to realize.
Garfield plays Jack, a.k.a. Eric, a.k.a. Boy A, the surviving perpetrator of a horrendous murder, committed as a child as the accomplice to a more-aggressive schoolmate. The film’s backstory is clearly inspired by the killing of James Bulger, a notorious “loss of innocence” moment for Britain because of the shocking nature of the crime—a nearly three-year-old boy was abducted by two ten-year-olds from a shopping mall and killed. The killers were sentenced to ten years in juvenile detention, the maximum amount possible for such young offenders, and upon their release were granted new identities by the government, a cruel irony that the British media could never wrap its head around. The crime committed was so well-known that the boys, now grown, would be targets their whole lives, so the government had to devote resources to protecting them from their own names and histories.
Boy A makes things a little easier to take. Garfield’s “Jack” is presented, through flashback, as very much the junior accomplice to a similarly heinous crime. While the Bulger killing was calculated, this is more random and spur-of-the-moment. But the details are really not that important. Jack is now free and, with the help of a kindly social worker (Peter Mullan), attempting to build a new life for himself. Not only is he wrestling with the demons that will haunt him his whole life, but he’s trying to get used to the very idea of being a grown person with a job and friends, which is entirely alien to him.
The film lives because of Garfield’s performance. Much like his later, better-known work as Eduardo Saverin and Peter Parker, he makes Jack ridiculously charming and loveable, if more than a little spacey and haunted. The same huge grin that he unleashes at rare moments in all his movies is there, and the incredible naturalism—Garfield is always ducking his head, furrowing his brow, filling every moment of his performances with life. It can come off a little mannered to some, but I’ve always had a real weakness for his energy, which is something many actors just can’t replicate.
Boy A asks you to look at this boy, who’s hard not to love and sympathize with, and reconcile yourself with his crimes and with the inherently, necessarily dishonest life he has to lead. We’re shown his home life as a child, hardly cheerful but not the sort of abusive nightmare we might ascribe to someone who would commit such a horrible crime. His partner in crime clearly has a much worse time at home, but Boy A is not looking to explain Jack’s motivations, just his difficulty living life day to day since then.
He gets a factory job, he makes friends, he loses his virginity to a girl who he starts dating, and he even helps to rescue someone from a car accident, which you think will lead to the exposure of his identity (it’s largely a red herring). The whole time, Garfield is hiding Jack behind a mask a little bit, then giving us glimpses at his endless well of vulnerability. Those moments are, undoubtedly, what made Hollywood producers start throwing roles at him. Boy A aired on TV in the UK but was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival and cinematically released in the US. Garfield went on to win a BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor that year, beating out three much better-known nominees: Anthony Sher, Tom Hardy, and Matthew Macfadyen.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out on Friday, and amidst the loud special effects and pile-up of villains, Garfield is still doing his best to give Peter Parker the relatable energy he gives Jack in Boy A. We need to see more of this from him in the future, just because it’ll be such a privilege to witness. Garfield’s next project, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, may be exactly what the doctor ordered, and of course his involvement in the long-gestating Scorsese project Silence is an exciting prospect, if it ever does get made. For now, Boy A still offers the most complete look at Garfield’s talent, and it’s worth checking out (it can be rented on Netflix or iTunes) if you need reminding of it.