Tuesday, September 20, 2011

MIFFF Review: 'Boy Wonder'

Do yourself a favor, go out and find a way to watch “Boy Wonder”. It’ll be totally worth it, promise. A near perfect combination of grim revenge movie and dark super hero origin story, it is good enough to make you completely forgive a questionable choice of title. To lump it in with the likes of “Kick-Ass”, “Defendor”, and “Super”, may be a natural inclination, but at the same time it does the film a great disservice because it is markedly different from all of those films. “Boy Wonder” doesn’t aspire to be the first chapter in an ongoing saga, it doesn’t directly reference comic book lore and culture, and the main character doesn’t try to become an iconic superhero or mimic heroic acts from the funny books. He wants revenge, plain, simple, brutal revenge, and this is the grim, gritty, ultraviolent story of how he goes about his quest.

To be honest, the set up isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. At ten years old Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer) witnesses his mother’s brutal murder at the hands of a local street thug, a case that is never solved. Understandably he grows up to be a sullen, introverted teen who listens to classical music, reads chemistry for fun, and has problems connecting with other people, including his classmates and his father, Terry (Bill Sage), a former boxer and recovering alcoholic. Sean hangs out at the local police precinct—something he’s done for years—and befriends a hotshot young detective, Teresa Ames (Zulay Heneo), who takes a shine to the troubled loner.

In his spare evenings Sean prowls the Brooklyn streets exacting a strict and decisive brand of vigilante justice against criminals, specifically those who have murdered innocents and gotten away with it, and those who prey on fear and helplessness. He kills a pedophile drug dealer and a sadistic pimp. This is really the most traditional “superhero” part of the equation, but there is no alter ego or secret identity, Sean simply wears a lot of black and keeps to the shadows. His motivations are also less than altruistic. He isn’t out to fix the world or save everyone, this is simply the way he has found to cope with his scars, how his rage and anger and emotional wounds manifest—through sudden, vicious acts of violence. Sean’s closest superhero kin is obviously Batman—a traumatized child who seeks a dark retribution against the culture that took his mother.

Sean’s trauma extends beyond his mother’s murder; the seeds were planted much earlier. Even before that transformative event he suffered years of physical abuse at the hands of his father, a violent drunk, now trying in vain to make amends. That theme—parents struggling to set things right with their estranged children—runs throughout “Boy Wonder”. Teresa is torn between a meteoric rise in her career and a custody battle with her ex-husband. She sees a glimpse of one potential future in Sean, a child ostensibly abandoned, and has to make a choice.

The pacing, script, and performances in “Boy Wonder” are, across the board, phenomenal. Even in moments of quiet, self-imposed isolation, you can see the simmering fury in Steinmeyer’s eyes, knowing that his violent street avenger side can burst out any second. He’s reserved and explosive, subtle and overt, and it really is something to watch him come unhinged on screen as his obsessive desire to find his mother’s murderer takes over. You feel for him, but you know what he’s capable of and are more than a little afraid of what he may do next. Sage and Heneo wear the inherent sadness of their characters, reaching out, trying and failing, and not knowing what else they can do. Everyone in “Boy Wonder” tries to repair the damage in their lives, looking for something, for answers they can’t find, and, in some cases, don’t want to find.

“Boy Wonder” is hands down my favorite of what has been a very strong, if all too brief, Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival. It is strong as a mystery; a bitter, tough-as-nails revenge story with lingering superhero undertones; and, perhaps most importantly, is a tale of the struggle to right horrific wrongs. Seriously, go to see this movie if you get the chance. It’ll grab you, pummel you, and throw you around for 90 minutes, but it will also move you and stick around long after you leave the theater.

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