An explosively violent 19-year-old offender (Jack O'Connell) is transferred to adult prison where he finally meets his match in a jail-hardened lifer - his father (Ben Mendelsohn). Rupert Friend is the counsellor who tries to reconcile the two, but his work is cut out under the uncaring regime of a pitiless governor (Sam Spruell). Screenwriter Jonathan Asser's experience of working with violent gang members allied to compelling performances from O'Connell and Mendelsohn makes this a cut above most tales from the British big house.
There are prison movies that lean heavily on the hope of redemption, that err on the side of the saccharine. And there are prison movies that hammer home the grimness, that are full of despair and brokenness.
It's rare that a prison film manages to strike a satisfying balance between the two, but Starred Up just about does it.
Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is transferred from a young offenders' unit to a high security prison due to his uncontrollable violence. By a stroke of wild coincidence, he's put in the same wing as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a lifelong prisoner he's rarely seen.
Eric hasn't been in the wing for a full day before he severely beats a fellow inmate. He's ordered to join a regular group therapy club that deals with anger management.
We've heard this story before. There's the troubled young man who can't imagine someone being on his side, the distant father whose genuine love for his son is expressed by the need to control him, and the idealistic counselor (Rupert Friend) constantly fighting for the right to help others.
And naturally, there's the malevolent governor (Sam Spruell) convinced there's no hope for his prisoners and ruthlessly dedicated to proving himself right.
Screenwriter Jonathan Asser is speaking from experience; he spent years conducting group therapy sessions with gang members. So while the machinations of the guv'nor and his lackeys at times seem unlikely, relationships between the lags themselves are well realised, particularly with Eric and Neville.
The grand tragedy of them as individuals and as a father and son is their inability to relate to people. Both O'Connell and Mendelsohn turn in finely nuanced performances; despite the brutality both characters exhibit, there's never any doubt of their frailty.
In particular, Neville's realisation of his own flaws and the impact they have on Eric is heartstopping in its simple, inelegant honesty.
Although the unwieldy structure sometimes gets in the way, and although some of the supporting characters seem hackneyed and unrealistic, Starred Up packs a potent emotional punch.
It's a story of the broken that doesn't attempt to heal them completely, but rather suggests that healing is possible - one day. And it's all the more powerful for it.