The Devil Has a Name was meant as a low-budget piece of film-festival fare, and as such it invites comparisons to hard-boiled noir titles like “Small Town Murder Songs” and “B’wana Devil.” It isn’t cheap to make a film, to put it mildly, and this 2015 World War II drama, with a track record that includes 2008’s animated “The Prince of Egypt,” proves that a serious filmmaker will try to step beyond the schlock clutter of the commercial industry. (Here, the marketing push includes a racy poster.) The story, a psychological/fantasy hybrid that could easily have been released by James Cameron’s company, bears a passing resemblance to “The Brothers Grimm,” but its director is Jared LeBoff, a relative newcomer who spent much of the film being himself (his parents are Walter LeBoff, a Broadway impresario, and Barbi Benton, known for her work on “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos”) and pulling his character into complex territory.
In addition to the moral underpinnings of the film, “The Devil Has a Name” has an interest in how children eventually evolve into the adults they grow up to be. Set against the backdrop of the 2011 Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster, the story centers on a preteen named Spike (voiced by Alex Machado) who moves to his aunt’s countryside home with his single mother, Clara (Lucy Punch), whose happiness is impaired by her job working as a teacher for the de-facto no-goodnik relatives of her college-age son, Josh (Ethan Rains). Spike’s chance to become part of a family emerges after Josh tries to separate Spike from his beautiful sister, Evelyn (Ania Bukstein), after she breaks up with her boyfriend, Sam (Tim Robbins), the boy’s school tormentor. Initially reluctant to appear with Evelyn and her pompous boyfriend, who’s treated her dismissively, Spike defies his guardedly loving mother by going after Evelyn. What he doesn’t know is that Evelyn’s cell phone, with its recurring message “To Be Continued,” is broken.
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The choice that Spike makes in “The Devil Has a Name” is crucial to the film. It also sets the stage for an underlying narrative arc that challenges the conventional wisdom about child behavior. Spike is the product of loving parents who are constantly striving to raise him in a good home. But when he discovers how to interact with Evelyn — a gal who’s clearly from another world and who doesn’t share the importance of his big smile or his whitish hair — all of those fantasies are immediately challenged. As Spike becomes more and more introverted, his anxiety spirals out of control. (As the film’s nameless figure, LeBoff doubles down on his vulnerabilities, a contrast that lends the character an unusual degree of empathy.)
“The Devil Has a Name” is unquestionably crude, but that’s a compliment. The way LeBoff and his cinematographer, Joel A. Marron, play with the angles and scale of the sets — and the jarring, unsynchronized, off-camera performances from the cast — suggests a director who knows exactly how to take his cast on an emotional roller coaster. Director of photography Joseph Francis Gartshore is appropriately unconventional for the project, and he stages the final confrontation between Spike and Evelyn with the dramatic élan of a modern-day “Ivanhoe.” The film’s tone varies between bawdy humor and queasy dread, but it all makes for a compelling meditation on the question of whether childhood is truly a passive place.