Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Written by: Jonathan Asser
Directed by: David Mackenzie
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 106
Date: 08/29/2014
IMDB

Starred Up (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

What Jail Is Like

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

English director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Mister Foe) has never made films that were easy to watch or easy to like, but with Starred Up, he seems to have found some kind of balance at last. As it begins, with its hard, unflinching look at a prisoner transferred to an adult institution, it might recall Steve McQueen's very tough Hunger (2008), but though Starred Up always retains its edge, it finds a sympathetic heart as well.

The stone-faced, hair-trigger teenager Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is no stranger to prison, but now he is old enough to be transferred from youth prison to the real deal, or "starred up," as it's known in prison slang. Guarded and coiled, and already with extensive prison experience, it's not long before his explosive nature gets him in trouble. But a prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), recommends that Eric join his group sessions to work on his temper. It's not an easy process, but Eric also gets a helping hand from a long-timer, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who has a special relationship with the troubled youth.

Certainly this movie could easily have turned into a goopy Hollywood-lite movie about redemption, but vivid details and the excellent, wounded performances help anchor things in something closer to truth. Jack O'Connell gives a star-making performance, and Rupert Friend plays the therapist with a certain resigned gravity. Mackenzie's camera could easily have slipped into documentary-like shaky-cam, but it's as reserved and unfazed as the concrete walls all around it. This is a powerful film, but also surprisingly watchable.

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