Director: Adam Randall
Cast: Bill Milner, Maisie Williams, Miranda Richardson, Rory Kinnear
Watch iBoy online in the UK: Netflix UK
Phones, eh? They’re everywhere these days. Your mum’s got one. Your nan’s got one. Your three-year-old nephew’s got one. Your toaster probably is one. The only reason you might not have a phone in 2017 is if you watched all of Black Mirror in a single weekend and got understandably scared of anything with a battery. If you thought you were inseparable from your phone, though, you’ve got nothing on Tom (Milner) in iBoy, who wakes up in hospital after being attacked to discover shards of his mobile have become lodged in his brain. The result? The ability to control electronic objects around him, especially smartphones.
It’s a far-fetched idea for a sci-fi, but compared to 2010, when Kevin Brooks’ novel, upon which this is based, was released, the premise is already more plausible, thanks to the rise of augmented reality and body hackers inserting contactless chips in their various appendages. Joe Barton’s screenplay and Adam Randall’s direction certainly ground the whole thing in as much reality as possible – events are shot on location in and around a council estate near Liverpool Street, while Tom uses his powers for a decidedly low-key purpose. There are no world-dominating masterminds or robot henchmen here. The villains are the gang members on his local estate who assault his friend, Lucy (Williams), on whom he has a crush.
The assault is effectively where we pick events up – a nasty, gruelling start for a science fiction thriller. The script doesn’t always juggle that balance of grittiness and grand abilities, but the cast are on hand to help catch any stray balls. Bill Milner, who impressed in Son of Rambow almost exactly 10 years ago, is on likeable form as the ordinary teenager, making surprisingly convincing work of staring into space and pretending that he can make car radios turn on, lights go out and phones burst into flames (no, the film isn’t sponsored by Samsung).
He also shares strong chemistry with co-star Maisie Williams, who plays Lucy with a tough resilience that extends to her morals, able to see the line that Tom crosses in trying to get revenge – far from being fridged or thrown under the proverbial bus to give our hero motivation, she’s as big a part of her story as he is. It’s no coincidence that the standout scene in the film just sees the pair sitting on Lucy’s bed, having a conversation without speaking – her texting the unknown “iBoy” and him sending replies with his smart-mind. Conveying the whole exchange through facial expressions, it’s a quiet, moving moment that nails the idea that modern technology is supposed to make it easier for people to communicate.
Things falter a bit when a big bad arrives at the end, although the ever-brilliant Rory Kinnear helps to paper over any clunky dialogue. Randall and DoP on the rise Eben Bolter (Chicken), meanwhile, use the CG effects judiciously throughout, leaning towards the subtle spectacle of streams of data visibly flowing out of London skyscrapers instead of attempting extravagant action. The result is a little on the dour side (you perhaps wish the screenplay downloaded some more jokes before booting up), but there are intriguing shades of grey to go with the downbeat visual palate; somewhere between Chronicle and Kidulthood, iBoy is a refreshingly small-scale superhero story that provides a welcome change of pace to the usual Marvel blockbusters. It’s new ground for Netflix too, and it’s reassuring to see the streaming service backing indie British cinema. Go back a decade and a film like this might struggle to find a wide audience. Today, well, you can watch it on your phone.
iBoy is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.