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The Boy | Review

The Sad Seed: Macneill’s Portrait of Rural Malaise Flickers with Occasional Menace

Craig William Macneill The BoyIn the cinematic landscape of evil (or at least sociopathic), children, it’s rare to catch a sound portrayal of the circumstances explaining their wicked ways. Director Craig William Macneill attempt to do just that with his directorial debut The Boy, based on a chapter of the novel Miss Corpus by Clay McLeod Chapman. Unfortunately, the occasional, brooding menace touched upon in the film is more often than not drowned out by the crushingly mundane exposition of its prolonged first act. Musical cues lead us to conclusions the material cannot quite conjure about on its own, forcefeeding us a portrait of one very lonely, isolated boy and his growing predilection for dead animals.

Nine year old Ted (Jared Breeze) is wasting away the lonely days at the deserted desert motel run by his father John (David Morse). It seems mom took off for Florida some time ago, and the good old Mountain Vista Motel doesn’t see the same type of tourist traffic it used to, leaving John to struggle to maintain the business. Ted’s time seems to revolve around collecting road kill since his dad gives him money to clean up the various corpses of random, flattened animals. Except, it seems Ted goes out of his way to lure animals into the middle of the bend in the road in order to increase his numbers (he’s pocketing his funds for a grand plan). On one such occasion, Ted lures a deer into the road, causing the unfortunate accident of William Colby (Rainn Wilson), who is then forced to hole up at the motel while his vehicle is taken care of. Colby is running away from his own personal issues, his wife recently passing away in a fire, something that has the local sheriff (Bill Sage) suspicious. But the boy and the older, sad gentleman make friends. It seems Ted is dead set on getting away from his dad and the motel. No matter what it takes.

With an icy blond coolness, Jared Breeze sometimes recalls the twin terrors in a much more effectively chilling tale about menacing kids, Austrian filmmaker Veronica Franz’s Goodnight Mommy. But the prevalence of sociopathic tendencies is thwarted by the eternal loneliness of little Ted’s day-to-day existence. Abandoned by his mother for more exciting, warmer climes, the rural, single-parent scenario makes this seem like the patriarchy tinged version of Psycho (1960), though with less sexual undertones. David Morse manages an empathetic portrayal as a fumbling father, but the subplot involving Rainn Wilson’s unfortunate interloper and Bill Sage’s aloof law officer does little to enliven any tension.

The film’s poster art is an unfortunate dead giveaway to the very predictable course of events that transpire (these reminiscent of more wildly outrageous fiery happenings in Iain Bank’s infamous novel The Wasp’s Nest, another portrait of a child psychopath, again a tale addressing memorably sexual undertones). And even though these events are indeed horrific, The Boy, like its title, lacks any sense of audaciousness. As a portrait of psychological distress, Macneill covers a basic checklist, but doesn’t really bother to delve into them. Does being an only child to a single parent in an isolated area with dead animals automatically lend itself to murder?

The camp value of a subject matter usually dictates a hidden taboo factor, hence the unavoidable thread of discomfort in more easily dismissible films like The Good Son (1993) or Mervyn LeRoy’s vintage 1956 classic The Bad Seed (currently undergoing a Lifetime movie treatment). But there is no such daring or provocation to The Boy, a sometimes moody, sometimes involving debut.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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