Starred Up

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Starred Up Movie Poster Image
Hard, powerful prison drama offers a glimmer of hope.
  • NR
  • 2014
  • 106 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie shows two ways of looking at an angry, lost youth. Some of the authorities see the need to treat him without mercy and with strong discipline. But a therapist feels that sympathy and listening could help. In this movie, nothing is that simple, and the problem isn't solved, but it appears that at least the main character has more of a chance than he once did. Also, a father learns to make a sacrifice for his teen son.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The main character isn't a role model, nor are any of the prisoners, but the prison therapist seems to be trying to do some good in the world. Whether he succeeds is another question.

Violence

The main character has raging outbursts of uncontrolled violence. In one scene, he beats a man unconscious, with blood shown. Cops in riot gear go after him, and he proceeds to fight them as well. In another scene, several guards gang up on him, and he stops the fight by biting a man's crotch and staying there until the others back away. The main character tells a story about how he killed a "pedo" (pedophile). The main character creates a weapon from a toothbrush and a razor and attempts to kill a man with it. Prisoners try to hang the main character in his cell. Various amounts of blood are shown throughout.

Sex

The main character is shown full-frontally naked on more than one occasion, though it's generally not sexual in nature. When he first arrives in prison, he's asked to strip, and an officer must inspect his bottom for smuggled items. (This happens off screen.) In another scene, he gets into a fight while naked in the shower. A prisoner removes a cell phone from his anus (he does this while sitting on a toilet, and the act is mostly out of view). A secondary character kisses his cellmateSome strong sexual innuendo during one of the therapy sessions.

Language

"F--k" and "f--king" are used almost constantly. "C--t" is also used very frequently. "S--t" is used a few times, and "ass" and "a--hole" are used.

Consumerism

One prisoner is shown wearing an Adidas running jacket.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some of the prisoners smoke cigarettes. Some also appear to be dealing drugs, but this is shown in an offhand, background way.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Starred Up is a well-made British prison drama about a troubled teen who becomes old enough to enter the adult prison system (the title is a slang term for that transition). The movie is extremely hard and unflinchingly realistic, with matter-of-fact violence and full-frontal male nudity. Characters fight fairly frequently, and sometimes the fights come to blows, with blood shown. In one fight, a character bites down on a man's crotch and stays there until the fight is over. Language is extremely strong and constant, including multiple uses of "f--k" and "c--t." One prisoner retrieves a cell phone from his rear end (nothing graphic shown on screen), and the main character must have his own rear end inspected for contraband before entering the prison. Prisoners are shown smoking cigarettes, and some clandestine drug dealing appears to be happening, but it's not a major plot point.

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What's the story?

Stone-faced, hair-trigger teenager Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is no stranger to prison, but now he's old enough to be transferred from youth prison to the real deal, or "starred up," as it's known in prison slang. Guarded and coiled and already with extensive prison experience under his belt, it's not long before Eric's explosive nature gets him in trouble. But a prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), recommends that Eric join his group sessions to work on his temper. It's not an easy process, but Eric also gets a helping hand from long-timer Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who has a special relationship with the troubled youth.

Is it any good?

English director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Spread) has never made films that were easy to watch or easy to like, but with STARRED UP, he seems to have found some kind of balance at last. As it begins, with its hard, unflinching look at a prisoner transferred to an adult institution, it might recall Steve McQueen's very tough Hunger (2008), but though Starred Up always retains its edge, it finds a sympathetic heart as well.

Certainly it could easily have turned into a goopy, Hollywood-lite movie about redemption, but vivid details and the excellent, wounded performances help anchor things in something closer to truth. O'Connell gives a star-making performance, and Friend plays the therapist with a certain resigned gravity. Mackenzie's camera could easily have slipped into documentary-like shaky-cam, but it's as reserved and unfazed as the concrete walls all around it. This is a powerful film that's also surprisingly watchable.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Starred Up's violence and fighting. How does the movie present these things? How do they make you feel? How does their impact compare to that of less-realistic movie violence?

  • Is the main character likable? Is he a sympathetic character? Why or why not? How does he show his humanity?

  • Does the prison therapist appear to be doing some good for his patients?

Movie details

For kids who love drama

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