Boy #5 has its world première at FrightFest 2021
Falling into the (recent) tradition of films like Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration (2016) Simeon Halligan’s Habit (2017) and Abner Pastoll’s A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (2019), Eric Ian Steele’s feature debut delivers its genre tropes in a mode of social realism. It begins with teenaged boy Nathan (Lennon Leckey) being arrested in a dark alley, his mouth still bloody from biting – and killing – a dog. Coming with no record, no known family history and no solid identification beyond his first name, Nathan is the Boy #5 of the title, a label which immediately marks him as a person being processed through a system.
The social worker assigned to him is Marjorie Dawson (Laura Montgomery Bennett), who is under something of a cloud. After her last teen client committed suicide, Marjorie has been unable to bring herself to close the case, and refuses to speak with a counsellor, to the growing alarm of her supervisor George (Adrian Palmer) and colleague Elaine (Natasha Naomi Rea) – and the enthusiasm with which she takes under her wing Nathan, a near ‘catatonic’ lost cause, suggests that she is desperate, to a degree that deviates from professional standards, to redeem herself.
As the initially unresponsive, monosyllabic (if even that) Nathan starts opening up to Marjorie, his strange fragmentary tales of blood drinking, castles, flight from armed men and long sleep lead her down a sympathetic rabbit-hole. First she researches Renfield’s syndrome online (on search engine ‘Queerio’), then she tracks down self-styled vampires (Michael Kehoe, Tosca Bell) in Manchester’s goth scene – before she finally starts to believe that her client might be not be a psychologically disturbed or posturing hipster, but an actual, ancient vampire who needs her help.
“He was just feeding you this story, and you were swallowing everything he was saying,” Marjorie is warned by the increasingly concerned Elaine, who just sees Nathan as a damaged, manipulative young man. Boy #5 is very much focused on different kinds of feeding, as Nathan struggles with a highly particularised eating disorder, and Marjorie assumes the rôle of nurturer. Much as a young woman regularly walks past the home where Nathan is staying and coos at a baby that will turn out just to be a doll, Marjorie’s own maternal instincts are rooted in an empty fiction. Nathan is not, and will never be, Marjorie’s son, even if this odd, aloof boy will drain her of all that she is ready and willing to give. The title may refer to Nathan, but really it is lonely, middle-aged Marjorie who is both the protagonist and the Renfield figure here, serving as enabling acolyte to another to give purpose to her own otherwise bleak and depressing life.
In keeping with the film’s realist presentation, the music in Boy #5 is insistently intradiegetic and naturalised to its environment. We hear the (bad) guitar playing of home carer Alan (Brian Dunne), the blues to which orphan Nina (Alisha Osman) listens on the radio as she eats her breakfast – and then there is the Mozart. At first we hear it booming out as though part of a formal score, only for it to be revealed that it is what Marjorie has been playing through her headphones at work. Yet as the film goes on, the Mozart does gradually, insidiously become part of the film’s own score, with no identifiable source from within the narrative. This slippage represents a subtle signifier that what we are seeing is an externalisation of Marjorie’s inner life – the idealised soundtrack that she hears in her head when insulating herself from the reality of the world around her. It also marks the point where the film shifts into high horror gear – although it is left to the viewer to disentangle how much of that horror is supernatural, and how much purely psychological. Steele’s Loachian approach to his material turns what is clearly a very low budget to the film’s advantage, as he paints a grim portrait of a boy’s, a woman’s and a city’s alienation.
strap: In Eric Ian Steele’s realist horror, a social worker and a homeless teen, both damaged, feed each other’s needs and fantasies
© Anton Bitel