Boy Wonder: Film Review

Boy Wonder Film Still - H 2011

Boy Wonder Film Still - H 2011

An intriguing, low-budget look at a young vigilante whose “heroism” comes with much moral ambivalence

In his feature debut, Brooklyn native Michael Morrissey tackles a comic book theme with gritty realism and moral ambivalence.

In his feature debut, Boy Wonder, writer-director Michael Morrissey has made a smart film on a difficult subject, vigilantism. Morrissey claims to be a life-long fan of comics and graphic novels, both of which frequently celebrate the vigilante as a super hero. But Morrissey’s point of view is much more nuanced and ambivalent about his avenging protagonist. The film is also an incisive psychological portrait of a young man reaching his breaking point with no one to turn to and, seemingly, no other recourse than to move outside the law.

The film has played second and third tier festivals for over a year and is now getting a small release that will probably not get on too many cineastes’ radars. If nothing else though, the film heralds new talents behind and in front of the camera and could well develop a cult following.

The two key characters are a 17-year-old Brooklyn loner, Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer), whose life was forever changed when he witnessed the brutal murder of his mother during a car-jacking nearly a decade earlier, and a sharp NYPD female detective, Teresa Ames (Colombian-born beauty Zulay Henao), who sympathizes with the boy yet has suspicions about his nocturnal activities.

The boy’s dad, Terry (Bill Sage), a drunk and wife-abuser, has cleaned up his act since his wife’s death. Yet you sense the boy has pretty much reared himself. His nose is so buried in books he has little social life. Instead he obsesses with finding his mother’s killer — hanging out at the local police precinct to pore over thousands of perp photos in his search for that face he will always remember — and with physical training in boxing and fighting toward the day he does locate her killer.

Teresa is similarly driven in her job, to the point that bringing down one criminal (James Russo) has cost her a marriage and the custody of her child. So she recognizes a kindred spirit in this young justice seeker. But she wonders about his definition of justice.

The viewer, however, does not. You see Sean’s pent-up rage spilling over into violence against those he sees as criminals. First he kills a drug dealer. Then it’s an abusive pimp.

Teresa has her own battles with male-chauvinist fellow cops and a retiring officer who tries to dissuade her interest in Sean’s case. But too many things add up wrong for her not to pursue Sean’s connection to the sudden increase in dead bad guys in the neighborhood.

Morrissey very nicely sustains audience sympathy with both characters even as they continue on a collision course. This, of course, brings you to the heart of the matter where the boundary between justice and vengeance begins to blur.

In true Batman fashion, Sean takes on nothing but bad guys. Indeed a hooker whose life Sean may have saved when he intervened frankly tells Teresa she will not help her find her pimp’s killer: As far as she’s concerned, he was “sent down from God to save me.”

The tightly wound youth’s thirst for vengeance is always understandable even as his violent behavior goes increasingly off the rails, taking on a fellow teen at a party and then a homeless, mentally deranged man who may or may not be an actual threat.

Steinmeyer is terrific in this role as he plays things low key and real. He’s not given to actorish quirks but rather actions and reactions that come from inside his grievously wounded character.

Similarly, Henao is intense yet levelheaded in her playing of Sean’s friend/adversary. Her character is quick-witted and does not lack for confidence, yet she can be brought up short by his young man. You sense her admiration for him in equal measure to her suspicions about his behavior.

While the film socks home a third-act punch with considerable flair, it does so by shrinking Brooklyn to postage-stamp size where a cold-case murder can get swiftly solved since everyone is near at hand and implausible coincidences and twists abound. Morrissey also indulges in occasional quirky editing, quick, abrupt cuts that cause a viewer to wonder about the reality of certain scenes — are they taking place for real or are they taking place in Sean’s mind?

Using a Red One camera, the director achieves a hard-edged, gritty ambience in the blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhoods where he and his producing partner John Scacia, a former NYPD detective, grew up. This greatly enhances the underlining veracity of the film’s portrait not only of this urban jungle but also of a young wonder boy falling apart mentally from its stresses and villainy.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 21 (Lightning Entertainment)
Production companies: A Boy Wonder production in association with Creative Rain Entertainment
Cast: Caleb Steinmeyer, Zulay Henao, Bill Sage, James Russo, Tracy Middendorf, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Chuck Cooper
Director/screenwriter: Michael Morrissey
Producers: John Scacia, Michael Morrissey
Director of photography: Chris LaVasseur
Production designer: Mary Frederickson
Music: Irv Johnson
Costume designer: Karen Malecki
Editors: Ray Hubley, Doug FItch
No rating, 95 minutes