The Boy is a very slow burn, one that successfully works to the narrative at hand, but isn't particularly enjoyable to watch.
In the summer of 1989, 9-year-old Ted Henley (Jared Breeze) and his father John (David Morse) run the Mt. Vista Motel. A small operation with fewer than ten rooms, a pool, and fresh morning coffee, the once vibrant Mt. Vista Motel has (much like the Henleys) fallen into disrepair. After Ted's mother runs off to Florida with one of Mt. Vista's guests, abandoning her husband and son, Ted becomes obsessed with running off to the Sunshine State - in the hopes of reuniting with his mother.
With no friends, no school, and nothing better to do, Ted begins saving for a Greyhound bus ticket - earning twenty-five cents for every piece of roadkill he scrapes off a highway next to the hotel. However, when Ted realizes that he can make money faster by enticing animals into the road, laying scraps of food near a blind turn along the highway, the 9-year-old's morbid curiosity, crippling isolation, and desperation to flee escalate - with deadly ramifications.
Written and directed by Craig William Macneill from a novel by frequent collaborator (and co-screenwriter) Clay McLeod Chapman, The Boy is an unsettling look at child development gone wrong. More introspective character drama than indie slasher movie, Macneill has created a cold and haunting look at adolescence in crippling isolation (and subsequently a boy's growing obsession with death). To that end, Macneill and Chapman succeed.
The Boy is a capable character study, with subtle shifts and nuances, charting the disturbing and believable tale of a trouble kid; yet, not a film that casual moviegoers, or even most horror fans, are likely to enjoy (or need to see). Instead, The Boy is a very slow burn, one that successfully works to the narrative at hand, but isn't particularly enjoyable to watch.
All the pieces are in place for Macneill to succeed but, because of the film's strict adherence to a semi-realistic sociopathic descent (plotted through a methodical series of predictable escalations), The Boy isn't particularly inventive as a film experience - and most moviegoers will predict many of the movie's bigger plot beats far in advance. Ted exhibits shocking behavior and The Boy features several genuinely violent moments but Ted's arc is a pretty dry journey that plays out through "textbook" stages of psychopathy. For viewers who are interested in that journey, and the movie's brooding tone, Macneill has created a convincing, intimate, and somewhat relatable descent into madness - succeeding more in how the story is presented rather than what actually happens.
The titular boy is portrayed by Jared Breeze (who also appears in the upcoming zombie-kid comedy Cooties) - and the young actor succeeds in conveying a believable mix of psychopathic red flags: intelligence, charm, boredom, and aggression, among others. Though Ted is the main character in The Boy, Breeze isn't required to carry the movie and is, instead, a mirror for the emotionally disengaged adults around him - reflecting how despair and selfishness in others leads to Ted's breakdown. Still, even where The Boy leans heavily on supporting cast members to advance the story, Breeze still injects Ted with a chill (and vacant stare) that hint toward a dormant, though sympathetic, rage waiting to be stoked.
In addition to a few minor side players, Breeze is flanked by Morse and Rainn Wilson (as mysterious motel resident William Colby). Morse offers a layered performance as John Henley - a down-on-his-luck father that, in trying to keep things together for his son, completely fails to see that Ted is transforming into a dangerous and unstable monster. John's meek but stubborn desperation to maintain the Mt. Vista Motel is juxtaposed against Colby, a middle-aged drifter that becomes a fleeting father figure for Ted. The Boy affords Wilson an opportunity to further diversify his filmography, taking a break from comedy to test in a more serious role, and Colby is (without question) the most intriguing character in Macneill's film.
That all said, Colby is also the best example of where The Boy falls short. Macneill introduces side-stories that, by the final act, simply do not pay out worthwhile dividends. Colby's arc, in particular, shifts away from smart character drama, with opportunity for insight into Ted, and instead becomes a cog in The Boy's muddled (albeit disturbing) plot. Whereas the first two-thirds of the movie are packed with chillingly stark cinematography, as well as uncomfortable and messy real-life moments, the climax is surprisingly clean (and straightforward) - played to illicit a reaction rather than bring established character dynamics full circle.
Casual moviegoers or horror lovers looking for a scary or spooky film will find The Boy to be a slow and forgettable story of budding psychopathy. At times, Macneill is content to present Ted as little more than a soulless slasher villain but, most of the time, the filmmaker imbues The Boy with enough subtlety and nuance to ensure the film provides a provoking viewing for the indie film festival crowd. In that sense, Macneill mostly succeeds in delivering on an artistic vision - even if that vision will not be palatable to most moviegoers.
The Boy runs 105 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, and for some thematic material. Now playing in theaters and on-demand.
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