Great title, and it refers not only to the term given to an inmate moving from a juvenile facility to an adult one, but also to the quality of director David Mackenzie's film. Stepping away from the appealing Indie stylised worlds he has created in films such as Hallam Foe, Young Adam and Perfect Sense, Mackenzie enters the domain of writer, and former prison counsellor, Jonathan Asser.
Here we meet the Starred Up Eric (Skins' O’Connell) and despite being difficult to read, two things are clear from the get go; he’s a fairly troubled teen and he’s well able to look after himself. Just as well because it’s not long before his skills are put to the test. Luckily he has someone on the inside, on his side and perhaps instrumental on his being there in the first place. Neville may be one of the kingpins in the prison but he isn’t the role model his son needs him to be and so Eric ends up under the care of prison counsellor Oliver (Friend).
There have been no shortage of prison films such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Bronson and The Escapist. However, few have taken such a harrowing look at the intricacies of the prison system and the effect on families. Starred Up gets right up and into the face of prison violence, nudity, abuse, love and hate – you can smell the adrenaline. The prison slang is intense and may be challenging for some audiences but nothing we can’t handle this side of the Atlantic. These are men of action, rather than words although a little more narrative would have gone a long way at times.
Mackenzie may have chosen leading men with Hollywood looks but the calibre of the performances stay with you a lot longer than the pretty faces. This is a star making turn from O’Connell – he is superb as Eric, Mendelsohn is unforgettable and Friend’s Oliver is a far cry from the comparative safety of Homeland’s Quinn. The paradoxes don’t end there – for an absorbing, educational film that deals with such ugly realistic themes, it is shot beautifully.
Disappointed that the UK has classified the film as 18s, Mackenzie is understandably delighted that Starred Up has earned a 16s cert here. Not preachy, cool or glamorous, Starred Up is a shocking, ice-shower, harsh-reality look at prison life. Perhaps the ideal sobering, cautionary tale for Transition Year.