In the British prison system, an inmate under 21 who proves too dangerous to be held in a youth offender institution will be moved—or “starred up”—to an adult facility. So it is with Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a 19-year-old working-class Londoner in Scottish director David Mackenzie’s punishing realist drama, written by Jonathan Asser, who drew upon his own experiences working as a counselor in HM Prison Wandsworth.
Initially held in solitary, Eric is unfazed by having to keep company with all the Choppers and Bronsons when he’s assigned a cell in a communal wing. He batters the faces of two prisoners, trounces a handful of guards in riot gear who try to subdue him, and clamps his teeth around another guard’s testicles, then slashes the face of another prisoner with a weapon he’s made from a razor and a toothbrush.
Eric is so violent that the ineffectual Deputy Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) feels he has no option but to have him hanged, and the killing passed off as a suicide. By the time Hayes reaches this decision, however, disclosures about the kid’s history and his attempts to manage his anger via the group therapy sessions run by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), an unpaid upper-class voluntary worker, have made him a character with whom it is possible to empathize, if not identify.
One sign of this is the drawing Eric made, as a child of 5, showing himself, his mother, and his father holding hands, above the words, “I Love you daddy.” It turns out to be stuck to the wall of his father’s cell—which happen to be in the same wing as Eric’s: Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) is an intimidating long-term con whose sentence has been increased because he killed another prisoner. With his father in prison and his mother dead, Eric was taken into care as a boy and abused by a pedophile on whose face he poured boiling water and sugar when he was 10. He’s serving his current sentence for “offing” a man who killed or hurt (it’s not clear) a woman dismissed by his father as a “junkie Slut.” Because of Starred Up’s murky sound and criminal argot, U.S. viewers may miss some of these details, though Mackenzie’s tense, fluent storytelling—more indebted to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped than Alan Clarke’s Scum, the obvious antecedent—is emphatically visual.
Neville encourages his son to attend Oliver’s meetings—from which the savvy Eric quickly benefits—but twice disrupts them. He is jealous that another man is usurping his long-forsaken paternal role. Intrigued by therapy’s potential to help him curb his own ferocious rages, he is too proud or too conflicted to sit in. He also resents Eric’s “fraternizing” with other men who value the sessions, not least because they are black. As it portrays the battle of wills between two men for one savable youth’s soul, Starred Up unostentatiously depicts other integral aspects of prison life—administrative corruption and homosexuality, as well as racism.
Whereas Scum, adapted by Roy Minton from his stage play, excoriated the inability of the British borstal system to rehabilitate young offenders, Starred Up is more optimistic, given Eric’s growing control of his temper. The reconciliation between Eric and Neville after the film’s histrionic final battle redeems the latter, yet the last words he speaks to his son—“I’m proud to be your dad”—are bitterly ironic. His removal from the scene doesn’t come a moment too soon.