Starred Up is a riveting drama thanks to a well written screenplay brought to life by realistic performances and depiction of life in prison.

19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell) is prematurely transferred to the same adult prison facility as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). As his explosive temper quickly finds him enemies in both the prison authorities and fellow inmates — and his already volatile relationship with his father is pushed past the breaking point — Eric is approached by a volunteer psychotherapist (Rupert Friend), who runs an anger management group for prisoners. Torn between gang politics, prison corruption, and a glimmer of something better, Eric finds himself in a fight for his own life, unsure if his own father is there to protect him or join in punishing him. [Tribeca Film]

Starred Up is a simple and nuanced film that tackles a volatile father-son relationship and how this affects their lives in prison, mainly that of Eric.

Instead of your standard exposition, the film fills every moment with details to keep the audience engaged. Through scenes, dialogue, and interaction of these characters you’ll pick up clues of a young man who already has his fair share of life in prison and sought his estranged father through a fitting yet tragic way.

Unlike what intervention reality programs love to tell you, most people don’t sit around to talk about their feelings and hug. A typical conversation between young adults and their  parents, especially those with strained relationships, is either awkward or explosive. Eric and his father communicate through either violent outbursts or restrained conversations, giving viewers a glimpse of what kind of environment the kid grew up in.

As Eric gets to know his father, the more he realizes that his old man is beyond what he expected. At the same time he has to deal with the fact that he has been “starred up” into adult prison. The handheld cameras enable the characters to move around while still capturing the claustrophobic environment where extreme personalities are forced to get along.

Here, two characters – one a counselor, the other a governor – represent two interpretations of what prison ought to be. One believes that it’s a place to rehabilitate troubled individuals so they can start a new life, while the other believes that it’s meant to cage these animals lest they go back and wreck havoc in society.

Through a detail-oriented approach, the story organically develops and the plot becomes unpredictable. Jonathan Asser’s experience as a counselor injected real life insights to the film and made it very believable. The film doesn’t rely on melodrama or sappy sentimentality like a generic movie would.

The well written script is bolstered by epic performances. Each actor in the cast portrayed a realistic character that could exist somewhere out there behind bars. Jack O’Connell already showed that he has a huge potential in Skins, and goes on to continue proving his talent. Other veterans – Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend – are also worth pointing out for giving back the same gripping acting.

On the other hand, the film’s approach to storytelling can be challenging for mainstream audiences. You have to pay attention to catch all the details. This prison drama doesn’t add anything new to the genre.

Overall these minor flaws don’t take away the impact of the film. Starred Up teaches us that in reality, the right choice is often the hardest option.

My Rating: 9/10

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