From first-time writer-director Ben Caird, a British-American brought up in London, Halfway has similarly spent time being developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Originally envisioned as the story of a UK national transplanted to the States for rehabilitation, the script evolved over time to focus more ardently on the American prison system and address its infamous racial bias in the process. Amazingly, African Americans constitute approximately half of the US prison population and a majority of the prison reentry population despite only comprising thirteen percent of the American populace as a whole.
Still best known for his star-making turn in The Blind Side opposite Sandra Bullock, in which he played a failing foster child adopted into an almost exclusively white community, Aaron finds himself in a similar scenario in Halfway, only rather than being bounced around the American welfare state he is at risk of being unable to escape the prison system. There are, however, a few key difference: he is an adult now, for one, and responsible for his own actions rather than being dependent on those of another; and as such this is very much Aaron’s film, not least because he is also serving as executive producer.
Soft-spoken and self-serving at the film’s outset, Byron isn’t immediately sympathetic or easy to like. He neglects his chores and seems uninterested in learning new skills, instead sleeping until noon and sneaking off either for a drive or to doss about with lonely neighbour Walt (a scene-stealing Jeffrey DeMunn). In the beginning it seems as though history is doomed to repeat itself, particularly when Byron somehow manages to cross the local rednecks and urban gangsters, and for a time the film promises to be a thoughtful but ultimately thankless watch; but as time goes on he begins to appreciate the second chance he has been given and takes a more active role in his reintegration. Even at its most uplifting and inspirational, it’s testament to Aaron’s performance that the stakes for Byron still feel so high.
That said, as absorbing and affecting as Aaron is revealed to be in the leading roll, he does not go completely unaided. As much as this is a commentary on race and recidivism, with Byron provoking almost the entire spectrum of prejudices from the local community, from overt displays of fear and loathing to Walt’s unintentional political incorrectness, Halfway doesn’t limit itself to a single social cause. It’s also feminist in its portrayal of two astoundingly strong women in Beth and Eliza, both of whom stumble but nevertheless remain steadfast in the face of considerable adversity. The former, poignantly portrayed by Pietz, is dealing with immense grief, having lost her husband and on the verge of losing their farm too; while the latter, Zingler’s tempestuous teen, isn’t sure quite who to blame for her own uncertain future.
Although a little slow to start, Halfway is an impressive first film from Caird. Not only has he displayed ambition when addressing another nation’s outrage, he has done so skilfully and convincingly by immersing himself in the culture and context in question and surrounding himself with the most appropriate and competent people to do so — both from the UK and the US. It can’t be mere coincidence that Academy Award winning songwriter Jimmy Napes (who co-wrote Spectre’s The Writing’s on the Wall with Sam Smith) agreed to provide another song for Halfway, only his second of 2016. Though, perhaps fittingly, that song’s detractors might see it as something of a re-offence.