While William Brent Bell’s The Boy lays an interesting foundation, the 2016 film’s descent into formula is its undoing. The screenplay by Stacey Menear has some chops, at least in terms of laying a foundation, but there’s very little to the production that defies convention.
Movies about eerie dolls and other artifacts of youth are as routine as confused goofs complaining about remakes ruining their childhoods. And there is something to the loss of virtue suggested by such tropes, with images of children gone devilish providing a shortcut to thrills and chills. But The Boy lacks courage and novelty.
Lauren Cohan stars as Greta, a woman from Montana looking for a fresh start. She lands a temporary nanny gig in Britain and arrives to work for the Heelshire family. The old couple (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) introduces their “son,” a porcelain doll named Brahms. The Heelshires treat Brahms like he is very much alive.
The couple heads out on holiday, leaving Greta alone with her thoughts and the doll. She contends with her past, including an abusive relationship with Cole (Ben Robson), and develops rapport with the grocery clerk Malcolm (Rupert Evans). When the doll starts to move around, Greta thinks something sinister is afoot.
The Boy moves along its predictable lane, with Malcolm knowing integral information and filling Greta in on relevant details. The mystery doesn’t linger long enough to resonate, as the peculiarity of the Heelshires is abandoned quickly. It’s too bad, as Norton and Hardcastle bring a sinewy Britishness to the film.
The Heelshire mansion is typical of Gothic horror sets, complete with hollow halls and an attic that the protagonist shouldn’t go into (she does, duh). Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who lensed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plays things relatively straight apart from a few upward shots of the home.
Cohan is convincing and she has enough earnestness to get by. She takes an interesting approach to the doll, faintly chuckling when she first encounters the curious relationship between the Heelshires and their “boy” and evolving through a quagmire of paranoia and fear to land in the world of acceptance.
Greta’s past is a hodgepodge of damaged chestnuts, from the foul ex-boyfriend to the personal crisis to the necessity of a getaway to the best friend rambling away on the phone. Too much exposition spoils the broth and Cohan’s character winds up a Walking Cliché, especially when the walls start coming down.
Bell only teases the maternal elements and that keeps the emotional content at arm’s length, which in turn reduces the story to a crude mystery tale. The audience wonders what’s going on, but there’s no interest in other integral questions and Greta’s psychological underpinning is just wasted space.
By the time the truth is revealed, nothing matters. Bell and Pearl carry through a series of zigzagging chase sequences and crash to a predictable finish. Things aren’t delicate enough to generate devious thrills and things aren’t silly enough to work on a Crimson Peak or Mama level of domestic madness.
The result is a lukewarm movie that just so happens to have a goofy premise. Cohan and the cast are fine, but there’s nothing to push The Boy over the edge. Even Bear McCreary’s score is just kind of there, serving as yet another reminder of just how basic this ceramic affair really is.