The Boy is another movie on my shortlist of new releases I felt like I should catch up on. An indie coming of age story that is actually a monstrous-themed serial killer’s coming of age sounded exactly like the sort of thing I would like. Specifically it sounded like the sort of project I would enjoy making. There’s a lot of room within that concept for some really interesting exploration of audience attachment and manipulation, and a lot of room for exploration of the serial murderer’s psychology. Wrapping it all up in the language of a less ominous sort of film sounded interesting too.
There was, ultimately, really only one thing that actively bothered me about The Boy – the soundtrack. It’s not that the soundtrack is bad; it’s just overly familiar and typical. If one was to imagine the sort of sonic tapestry that would accompany an indie psychological thriller, this is exactly what one would imagine. It’s utterly lacking unique characteristics, and feels like the bland mid-point of a David Lynch soundtrack and the work Brian Reitzell was doing on Hannibal. It’s all hollow rattling noises and spooooky drones. It’s certainly a nitpick, because there’s nothing technically wrong with this soundtrack, it’s just forgettable and uninteresting.
The movie makes up for it in a lot of other ways. For one thing the small cast is excellent. I was fearfully anticipating a cast of untrained unknowns, but instead the movie has a handful of character actors, like Rain Wilson, who bring the movie a lot of personality and help carry the characters. Even the child actor is unusually good, conveying more than the average bland dead-eyed performance you’d expect in this sort of role. This is all much to the movie’s benefit, as it firmly aligns itself with that execution dependent vague characters thing that indie dramas like to use. Characters don’t have much in the way of different voices or deep personalities on the page, and so the film has to rely on the depth of the actors and the atmosphere the film tries to generate. So actors like Rain Wilson and David Morse lend the film a lot of quality that would’ve maybe been loss if the director, Craig William McNeil, had gone with unknowns. These guys bring a depth to roles that could’ve easily felt sketched and incomplete, or overly rote.
The film is, almost laughably, set in a motel. I assume it’s a Psycho reference, although I can’t say I, personally, could pick out any other similar references to other such movies. It follows a young boy who lives with his father at the motel. His mother’s recently left, and he dreams of following her. The boy and his father run the motel, a life they find monotonous and depressing. The two clash regularly, and derive a faint amount of entertainment from the sparsely appearing guests. When we first meet them, we see the main character getting payed 25 cents for each carcass he pulls off the road in front of the motel. The second time he comes back with a piece of road kill, his dad tells him he’ll have to take an IOU. Clearly the motel is not doing well. The boy is pissed (he’s saving the money to get a bus ticket to his mom) and briefly ponders a pet rabbit and the road before moving on. The two have a grim fight on the child’s birthday, and this leads the boy to luring animals to the road with chicken feed. Rain Wilson crashes his car into a deer that walks out onto the road and that’s what gets the movie going.
Not that this movie ever achieves any sort of breakneck pace or anything, but still we get to see a series of slightly disconnected events that push the boy towards his final form. He experiments with a guest’s child in the pool. And by experiment I mean he holds his head underwater for an alarmingly long time. He starts to connect with Rain Wilson, a habit his father claims is regular (once he snuck into the trunk of a departing family). Rain Wilson has a mysterious past. He’s avoiding showing up on the grid, avoiding the police, and travelling with a box of his wife’s ashes. This is a deliberately obfuscated plot line that eventually gets a fairly anticlimactic “reveal.” I suppose we’re maybe meant to question whether the reveal is real or not, but it’s still a pretty typical binary choice.
The thing that ultimately pushes the boy over the edge isn’t really related to any of this, in case you were wondering. It’s not entirely unadvertised, but it still leads to a movie that feels more like a series of scenes than a tight film. This sort of structure is a fairly standard practice for a coming of age type story. The fact that the design of the film is a clear riff on these stories sort of justifies the structure. The only problem is that the movie doesn’t do much to justify this premise. It’s just an adopted cinematic language, but it doesn’t do much for the story. The movie doesn’t pretend to be a normal coming of age story and then climax with a twist, and it doesn’t play with the genre conventions in any kind of subversive way. The film has nothing to say about the coming of age story it’s pretending to be, and it never truly works as a coming of age story, so consequently it feels like a little bit of a hollow stylistic choice.
Instead it just becomes a movie about a creepy boy getting creepier and creepier, which sounds more like a horror movie than anything else. The actual events that start the boy down his murderous path don’t resonate as character pieces, so it’s hard to sympathize with the boy on that level. In some ways it belongs to the same camp of films as Spring, a genre movie blurring the lines between genres and adopting an indie movie patois. Spring’s genre elements, however, felt far less dichotomous. The Boy isn’t three or four things jumbled together, it’s two. The thing is the jumbling feels like it might be holding the movie back, instead of offering a transcendent merging of genres. It never really shines as either a dark coming of age story or a horror film.
None of which is to say it’s bad; it’s just that when I eventually get around to recommending The Boy it’ll come with a series of caveats.
I feel like this is a good a place as any to admit that I don’t really like the stylistic conventions that I personally associate with the term indie movie. I’ve liked some movies in spite of this style, naturally. Some movies are just good. There’s just something about the combination of visual style and writing style that comes with indie films that leaves them feeling cursory. It’s easy to see why – the visual style is all about obfuscation and atmosphere over narrative power or visual communication. The writing style is similarly frequently obtuse and incredibly surface level. Now obviously this is a sweeping generalization and it’s kind of silly. It’s just that in my experience a bland, shallowly written movie with a little indie film flair might get more positive reviews than it necessarily needs. The style also doesn’t really work with anything other than obtuse atmosphere driven films or character pieces. It doesn’t do tension well, or pacing well, or action well. It’s a much more specialized style than some filmmakers realize, and can’t just be tossed onto a genre film effectively. It can make scenes that should be taut drag, moments that are meant to be dramatic fall flat, and generally undermine the film. There are other styles that work on a low budget.
All that being said I enjoyed watching The Boy. It’s definitely a bit of a flawed film, that much I’ll readily admit. It’s a good idea that needed another pass or two to bang it into a really resonant shape. Instead it’s basically a good idea still, but an unpolished one. Albeit an unpolished one with a fairly gripping cast. There’s not much horribly wrong with The Boy, it’s just never as good as it could be, and never fully realizes its premise. So whether or not you should watch The Boy largely depends on your interest in that central premise. For me the idea of melding a coming of age story with the tropes of slasher films was exciting, and carried me through the project. It kept me intrigued and kept me enjoying myself. For others it might do the same. It’s a clever concept, one that should appeal to horror fans a fair amount. I suppose that might mean it would appeal to coming of age fans too, but I’m not sure if that’s a real demographic. Essentially if the premise of The Boy intrigues you, it’s worth giving a shot.