SXSW Review: THE BOY

Craig Macneill's THE BOY is slow-burn horror done right.

I caught Craig Macneill's The Boy early on at this year's SXSW, and I've been wrestling with a review for the film ever since. It's not that I'm uncertain how I feel about The Boy (I loved it), or that Macneill's made a film that defies an easy, wholehearted recommendation (see also: Rick Alverson's Entertainment, which I also loved, but will have a much harder time casually recommending to people). The truth is, I'm really not sure how much I want to say about The Boy on my way to championing it. It's great, it's creepy, it's got a jet-black third act that'll have you squirming in your seat, and just about everything-- from the cast and the script to the set design and the cinematography-- works. Beyond that? I'd recommend going into The Boy cold. That's how I did it, and the decision paid off.

Let me be clear: The Boy does not involve an earth-shattering twist. There's no late-in-the-game reveal that calls everything you've just seen into question, no mid-movie genre-change that'll leave you dazzled. This is just a really solid horror effort (sub-genre: "Bad Kids"), and the less you know about how things get from A to Z, the better. If that's good enough for you, congrats: you listen to reason! For everyone else, I'll get into some particulars below. Just be aware you're not doing yourself any favors.

The Boy takes place in and around a cheap, dusty roadside motel that's long past its prime. There, a caretaker (David Morse) and his son (Jared Breeze) sit around and wait for the inevitable. Dad's content to wile away the hours in front of a tiny television, knocking back drinks and dodging bill collectors. The titular boy, on the other hand, seems to be losing it a little bit in the face of all that isolation and boredom. There's nothing to do, no kids to play with, no real point to anything anymore. He's become obsessed with the idea of tracking down his absentee mother in Florida, and he's developed some unsavory hobbies as a result of that obsession. From the get-go, it's clear that this kid's on a bad path.

One thing leads to another, and a drifter (Rainn Wilson, walking the same tragic/comic/menacing line that he nailed in James Gunn's Super) arrives at the motel. Like the boy, the drifter's got secrets, and an unlikely friendship begins to form between the two. And then...well, that's really all the setup I'm prepared to offer. Rest assured, bad things are going to end up happening at the Mt. Vista Hotel.

And rest assured that Craig Macneill's not going to pull any punches. Macneill makes a helluva debut here (he's got a history in shorts, but this is his first feature-length film), and the script-- which Macneill co-wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman-- is impressive, as well, both for its economy and for its willingness to go really, really dark. The Boy starts off tense and only ratchets things up from there; by the time the film's devastating third act begins, you're ready for just about anything. It can be a bit of a slow-burn getting to that point, but in the end, Chapman and Macneill's script delivers.

But the real star of The Boy is Jared Breeze. This kid's got the goods. Rainn Wilson, David Morse, and a variety of other actors (all of whom appear in smaller roles; this is mainly a two- or three-man show) all turn in fantastic, memorable work. But Breeze walks away with the movie. He's called upon to handle some truly dark material, and there's a blankness to Breeze that makes that material all the more upsetting to watch. Aiden Lovekamp-- as another little kid who has the misfortune of crossing paths with Breeze-- is also great; the scenes shared by these two are among the film's most effective, particularly a sequence in a swimming pool.

The Boy burrowed under my skin in a big way. I've spent more time thinking about it than anything else I've seen at SXSW this year, and I'm very excited for others to get a look at it. I'm also intrigued by rumors I've heard circulating in the wake of the film's success: is this really the setup for a trilogy of films? Now that could be interesting.

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