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Junior Achievement

Benjamin Ross's black comedy The Young Poisoner's Handbook is a relentlessly nasty piece of goods that never hesitates to make a kind of existential antihero out of its protagonist--a brilliant, psychopathic fourteen-year-old who poisons his stepmother with stuff from his chemistry set and the local drugstore, gets caught, cons the prison shrink and emerges years later from the nuthouse to renew his obsessive career in murder.

Is it bleak? Oh, yes--in that tight, quirky, suffocating style that English true-crime moviemakers have long favored in dark portraits such as The Krays. Is it funny? Absolutely. Because the real-life story of Graham Young, teenage killer and tabloid sensation of the 1960s, is transformed into something else again. Rather than play it straight, the sly Ross uses the Young case to savage every British institution in sight--sour suburban families that stifle their children; schools that steamroll their best students; a "mental health" establishment that values prestige over healing; factories and businesses that rank profit ahead of humanity; sexual repression in general. You name it: John Osborne and the Angry Young Men couldn't skewer it more deftly.

In his grandest moments, young Graham (cunningly played by bug-eyed Hugh O'Conor) overcomes his domestic horrors and becomes the scorpion surveying life's arid desert. When delusion and clumsiness bring him low, he's a kind of victim. Never, never do we quite see him as the madman he is--and in that lurks the film's whole subversive charm.

As portrayed here, the Young family majors in grotesque: Dad (Roger Lloyd Pack) makes bathroom jokes and cuffs the boy around; Stepmom (Ruth Sheen) carps and shouts Graham down; his vain sister (Charlotte Coleman) preens and cackles. What's a smart boy to do? Why, hide the dirty pictures in the mattress, then manufacture some slow-killing thallium, like an inverted Louis Pasteur, with which to spice up the bland family dinner.

For young Graham, "life is a series of illusions that only scientists can strip away." But he misses his chance to create beauty or save lives with his tormented genius. Instead, he is driven to destruction. En route, he outflanks the deliciously egotistical Dr. Ziegler (Antony Sher), does in an entire platoon of co-workers down at the photo lab and writes the fictitious memoirs from which the movie supposedly springs.

In the mood for dark fun etched with acid? Here's your prescription.--Gallo

The Young Poisoner's Handbook.
Screenplay by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross. Directed by Benjamin Ross. With Hugh O'Connor, Antony Sher, Ruth Sheen and Roger Lloyd Pack.

 
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