Starred Up opens in a dark anteroom where 16-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is being processed into a prison for adults, a status he earned (the Brits call it being “starred up”) due to the violence and the frequency of his crimes. O’Connell plays Eric as a near-feral survivor of abuse and neglect; his movements economical and confident, he carries himself like a cat, quick to react to a threat and prone to bursts of ferocity. Soon after arriving, Eric nearly kills a fellow prisoner who’s done him no harm and then battles the guards who try to subdue him, creating a standoff by taking one man’s penis in his mouth through his pants and threatening to bite it off. Though this preemptive strike is presumably intended to keep the other prisoners at bay, it has the opposite effect, earning Eric the enmity of powerful alpha dogs like one of the guards who runs the prison and the suave prisoner who unofficially runs Eric’s unit and doesn’t want some crazy kid causing trouble on his turf.
Eric’s volatility also earns the attention of two men who want him to calm down for his own sake: his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a longtime prisoner high in the pecking order, and Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer who leads an encounter group whose members learn to break the cycle of violence they’ve been trapped in. But what first appears to be a good dad/bad dad battle for Eric’s soul, with Oliver demonstrating the power of respect and affirmation while Neville fails miserably with his hectoring and beatings, turns into something more interesting as both men exhibit more—and more complicated—aspects of their characters. Oliver’s crusade to give Eric a place to be “just a kid” learning how to be a man turns into a battle with the prison brass, who are half-convinced from the start that Eric is beyond redemption. When Oliver loses that fight, Friend lets us see what’s behind the hints people have been dropping about how unstable Oliver may be, despite his calm façade. Meanwhile, without ever lowering the wattage on Neville’s fury or the power he wields over other inmates, Mendelsohn runs through an arpeggio of emotional changes as Neville struggles with jealousy over Eric’s relationships with men who can mentor him better than he can, acknowledges his cluelessness about parenting, and fumbles his way through to a breakthrough of sorts.
The film’s staunch realism probably owes something to director David Mackenzie’s decision to film the scenes in chronological order and keep his actors on location in a former maximum-security prison in Northern Ireland, and to the care he took to make sure that even actors with just a few lines could match the intensity and complexity Mendelsohn and O’Connell bring to their roles. Mackenzie was also wise to work with a writer who was intimately familiar with his subject; screenwriter Jonathan Asser was, like Oliver, a volunteer therapist who led group sessions in a British maximum security prison, which may help explain why the dynamics of Oliver’s group feel so believable. A peaceful conversation can turn into a confrontation on a dime, and when it does the men spring from their seats, using their chests to confront, block, or shield one another while the talk roils on, Oliver and the other noncombatants working hard to defuse the situation before it explodes.
But Starred Up isn’t just about life in prison. It’s also about the brutality and neglect in the outside world that made Eric near-psychotically violent and unable to trust others. Oliver’s group saves the boy’s life, teaching him how to gain control of his emotions and alter the behavior that’s endangering him, yet when Oliver first reaches out, Eric shuts him down with contemptuous rage, pegging him for another predatory pedophile. In essence, this film is asking whether prisons like this can make space not just for containment and further brutalization, but for rehabilitation and forgiveness. The cautious optimism with which it answers that question is credible because the characters and setting feel so thoroughly authentic.