Tyro helmer Michael Morrissey takes moral relativism to surprising lengths in “Boy Wonder,” a psychological thriller about a troubled, would-be superhero teen seeking vigilante vengeance for his mother’s murder. Morrissey displays a flair for moody atmospherics as his protagonist wanders Gotham’s streets and subways at night, but the film relies too heavily on cryptic flashbacks and deliberate gaps in the narrative to create suspense, revealing rather than fleshing out connective tissue. The pic bows in limited release Oct. 21, just in time for Halloween, which, with strong word of mouth on the fantastic/horror/Comic-Con circuit, may prolong its limited run.
Sean is first introduced as a quiet, classical-music-loving 10-year-old who adores his mom (Tracy Middendorf). A jarring, almost indecipherably fragmented scene depicts the killing of his mother during an apparent carjacking. “Boy” then leaps forward nine years to rediscover Sean (Caleb Steinmeyer) as an introverted, straight-A student who works out at a kickboxing gym and pores over mugshots at a Brooklyn police station after school. He hits the books by day and prowls the streets in a black hoodie by night, meting out summary justice to abusive pimps and pedophilic drug dealers in prolonged, rapidly edited action sequences.
As Sean’s anger festers, fueled by oft-reprised traumatic carjacking flashbacks and visions of past mistreatment at the hands of his alcoholic father (Bill Sage, excellent), his violence starts to spin out of control. He targets less obviously guilty malefactors and doles out excessive punishment. At the same time, his relationship with his now-sober, repentant father, whom he never really forgave for his abuse, begins to flourish, taking him down sinister, unexpected paths.
Meanwhile, writer-director Morrissey tracks the parallel story of Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao), a newly promoted cop at the precinct house that Sean has made his second home. The case that brought her into the limelight is close to unraveling; her archvillainous collar (a wonderfully malevolent James Russo) is brokering info for a minimal sentence and threatening her kid. Teresa seems as haunted by her unpunished perp as Sean is disturbed by his mother’s unsolved murder, their mirror obsessions gradually cluing Teresa in to Sean’s double life. But if Steinmeyer’s brooding adolescent convincingly erupts into unrestrained violence, Henao’s hotshot female cop barely registers at all, despite dynamic comic support from Daniel Stewart Sherman as her bigoted but oddly likable partner.
Given the popularity of non-supernatural DIY avengers in the mode of Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” there may be a market for this problematic, self-appointed superhero, though “Boy Wonder” lacks the requisite snarky satiric note. Morrissey’s title refers ironically to Batman’s squeaky-clean juvie sidekick, but the film itself tilts more pointedly toward Batman angst in the Christopher Nolan mold, minus the thrill-ride spectacle.
Production values are pro throughout, belying the pic’s limited budget.