Prison dramas aren’t my favorite genre; like war movies, they may be well done and socially necessary, but that doesn’t make them pleasant to sit through. When a film in said genre gets rave reviews for being “hard-hitting” and “queasily realistic”, I expect the gap between “good” and “enjoyable” to be even wider. But if I dreaded my Starred Up viewing experience going in, I was hugely misguided. The film tells the story of Eric Love, a 19-year-old inmate in the U.K. who is preemptively transferred (“starred up”) from juvenile hall to adult prison, where survival is the only goal and “rehabilitation” is a lost cause to the higher-ups. It’s heavy-hitting but never masochistic — while its strive for realism makes it extremely R-rated, it’s far more psychologically intense than it is brutal or depressing. The naturalistic style and powerful themes (the vicious cycle of aggression, how father/son dynamics inform one’s conception of “manliness”, what kind of person is worth saving) made it great, but it’s the acting that made me love it. Like the young dealers in The Wire or Short Term 12’s Marcus, O’Connell’s Eric pulses with intensity in every scene, simultaneously empathetic and terrifying in his vulnerability. And like those works at their best, it doesn’t hold your hand through the exposition: it shines when it pulls the camera back and just lets the characters interact, trusting that you’ll “get it” even if you don’t understand every line.
It’s not remotely for everyone, but I loved this movie. The group therapy scenes were some of the strongest I’ve seen all year. Check it out on iTunes, preferably with subtitles (it’s in English, but…just trust me on that one), and check out the review at: