Latest opus by documentarian Rory Kennedy follows two years in the lives of a poor Europa, Miss., family, beginning as the story of a disturbed little boy and his interaction with social services and winding up as a disquieting exercise in American Gothic. Docu, skedded to air on HBO in 2004, should attract a lot of attention on fest circuit.

Latest opus by award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy (“American Hollow”) follows two years in the lives of a dirt-poor Eupora, Miss., family, beginning as the story of an emotionally disturbed little boy and his interaction with the social services network and winding up as a disquieting exercise in American Gothic. Docu, skedded to air on HBO in 2004, should attract a lot of attention on fest circuit.

Robert Oliver, a troubled 7-year-old, sees a psychiatrist and has been diagnosed with numerous emotional and behavioral disorders. His grandmother Anna, with whom he and younger brother Benji live, speaks of the many dogs and cats he has killed and describes his frequent attempts at suicide. Early scenes show a hyperactive Robert shouting, gesturing wildly and hitting his head against assorted surfaces. He’s on two types of medication, which his grandmother often has to shove down his throat. His mother, Robanna, who was raped when she was 15 by Robert’s father and has physical and emotional problems of her own, has battled her mother for custody of the boys; the two, who live near each other, bicker constantly. Social Services hovers, visiting occasionally, temporarily content to have the child monitored by his psychiatrist.

Transferred to a new school, Robert suddenly becomes a model student, making the honor roll, interacting with classmates and behaving like a normal first-grader. But Anna isn’t buying it. She’s convinced Robert will revert to his erratic self-destructiveness. At home, he continues to act out and, on a visit to Anna’s house, his new principal (one of the all-female flock of caregivers in Robert’s life) counters Anna’s dire predictions by suggesting to Robert that he try bringing “school Robert” back home.

By now, filmmaker has planted hints that perhaps Robert is not the problem, with early warning flags including fact that Robert and Benji sleep in Anna’s bed. One particularly horrific segment has Anna drag Robert outside and tightly squeeze him until the child becomes hysterical and begs her to release him. She interprets his resistance as anger toward school, and exhorts him to “let it out.” Anna is later hospitalized with deep bruises up and down her legs, which she says were caused in preventing Robert from killing himself.

Kennedy builds her horror story slowly, revelations seemingly occurring to professionals, the filmmaker and the viewer simultaneously. While Robert fades into normality, Anna never ceases to morph in strangely irregular, fascinating ways. At Robert’s birthday party, she limps around like a ghost, ignored by the boys she caresses. Robert’s psychiatrist has tentatively diagnosed Anna with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, suggesting she reported or induced illness in Robert in order to give herself a crusade.

Tech credits are fine. Joel Goodman’s music is low-key and evocative.

A Boy's Life

Production

An HBO presentation of a Moxie Firecracker production. Produced by Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy. Directed by Rory Kennedy. Co-directed by Nick Doob.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Doob; editor, Charlton McMillan; music, Joel Goodman; sound, Kennedy. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 24, 2003. Running time: 77 MIN.

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