Whether or not this is what the filmmaker intended, 10 1/2 makes an excellent case for sterilization. Cretin parents spawn a psychotic child, who’s young age belies his appetite for destruction. Said child abuses a younger child and is left to sink or swim in the system. Kind of one of those ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’ movies, isn’t it? On the plus side, the film is achingly realistic and the child actor playing the demented tyke at the center of this bleak picture gives it all he’s got, so it’s high degree of quality makes it a watchable, if not exactly palatable experience.
The title, 10 1/2, refers to the age of the protagonist. The first five minutes of this movie are as grueling a beginning as you’re ever likely to see. Inspired by a steady diet of pornographic films, an abused boy named Tommy (Robert Naylor) tries to make a 7-year-old perform oral sex on him. He fails, is caught, and he is beaten senseless by the small boy’s older brother. Following this catastrophe, Tommy is relinquished to the system by his desperate foster mother.
Tommy’s explosive temper soon proves challenging (to say the least) for the staff of a home for troubled boys. The majority of them want to pass him on to the psychiatric hospital to deal with. Gilles (Claude Legault) is the one who doesn’t. He’s determined to make Tommy see the error of his ways and get to the bottom of his troubled past. Tommy is pretty much the worst kid you can imagine- kicking, biting, throwing shit around the facility, spewing every manner of expletive he can come up with. Can a heart this wounded be healed? Can Gilles get through to Tommy, or are some people, no matter how young, a lost cause?
‘Harrowing’ is an apt way to describe this film. ‘Intense.’ ‘Infuriating,’ when you see what Tommy’s parents have done to him (although he has apparently repressed and internalized most of his early childhood memories) you will want to kick the ever-loving crap out of them. A child like Tommy has suffered major hurt and trauma at a very young age. I believe only a small minority of sociopaths are born evil. Parents ruin their children and leave them to screw up the next generation, on and on.
Tommy’s only foil is his dad (Martin Dubreuil,) who grooms him with false promises that he will take him in and normalize his life. Ultimately, patient, soft-spoken Gilles is the only one who gives a shit whether Tommy lives or dies. He wants to believe Tommy can be better, but Tommy proves to be an extremely hard child to believe in.
While Legault gives an effective performance as the dedicated social worker, it is Naylor who really impressed me as Tommy, especially given his young age. The part of Tommy must have been extremely hard for any actor to pull off, let alone a child actor. Most of the movie is simply a battle of wills between Gilles and Tommy, with the boy smashing things, displaying inappropriate sexual behavior, attacking staff members, and making suicide threats. It’s morally questionable to let a child play a role like this (it’s clear Canada has more lenient child pornography laws than we do (!)), but Naylor’s handling of his part is nothing less than heroic.
The ending’s ambiguity means we don’t really have an idea what will happen to Tommy at the end of this movie. I waited and waited for some kind of redemptive moment, but that moment unfortunately never came. All I can do is hope that Tommy gets his shit together. Whether (if he were a real person) he becomes a functioning member of society or a hardened sex offender depends so much on those crucial years, and we’ve gotta love Gilles for taking a chance on this frustrating, impossible boy.
10 1/2 is not a popcorn movie, not a family-friendly flick. It’s a dark, disturbing, impossibly grim (did I say disturbing?) look into a child protective system that needs a lot of work, and ‘parents’ who, should they refuse to use birth control or sterilization, would do society a favor by neutering themselves by any means possible. There are thousands of Tommy’s braving the system at this very moment, and I truly fear for them, and what their eventual maturation will mean to us as a society.