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Originally published Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Boy A": When the past gets in the way of a promising future

John Crowley's "Boy A" is a raw, tragic British drama starring Peter Mullan, vigorous as ever as a committed caseworker/parole officer, who tries to rescue a boy (Andrew Garfield, a real find) from a grotesquely public past.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Boy A," with Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan. Directed by John Crowley, from a screenplay by Mark O'Rowe, based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell. 100 minutes. Rated R for rough language. Varsity.

Terry is a caseworker/parole officer who is almost too dedicated to the cause of rehabilitating ex-cons. He considers his greatest achievement to be "Jack" (not his real name), a 24-year-old man/boy who has spent most of his life in juvenile prison. As a child, Jack was jailed for participating in the highly publicized murder of a 10-year-old girl.

Terry has successfully created a fresh identity for the newly freed Jack, who responds with childlike wonder to the opportunity of bonding with noncriminals his own age. But memories will not be suppressed, and the past keeps interfering with the possibility of second chances.

That's the fatalistic essence of director John Crowley's wrenching, provocative British drama, "Boy A," based on Jonathan Trigell's 2004 novel. The film and the book are fictionalizations of the 1993 murder of 2-year-old James Burger. The screenwriter, Mark O'Rowe, who previously worked with Crowley on Colin Farrell's 2003 Irish comedy, "Intermission," deftly creates a group of characters who always seem genuine.

Peter Mullan, intense and vigorous as always, is perfectly cast as Terry, whose dedication to saving this one boy leads to the neglect of his own family. Katie Lyons, as Jack's girlfriend, is cautiously but believably receptive to his naive declarations of affection, and Shaun Evans makes a credible best friend.

The American-born, British-raised Andrew Garfield demonstrates considerable range in the role of Jack, whose memories of a horrendous childhood crop up everywhere, sometimes tarnishing an innocent moment and making him question his sense of trust. Jack can seem a blank sheet at times, a passive partner, but Garfield always manages to capture his passion for an adolescence he never really had.

Perhaps the circumstances under which Garfield made the film had something to do with the way he connects with Jack's yearning to prove himself. In his previous movie, "Lions for Lambs," Garfield wasted much of his screen time as a student listening to Robert Redford's lectures. "Boy A" gives him a second chance to demonstrate his potential.

Like Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," Crowley's film is about the dark side of obsessive childhood relationships, and the Leopold-Loeb kind of connection that can lead immature kids to disaster. But it goes further in dealing with the adult consequences.

Indeed, "Boy A" is one of those rare movies that takes the idea of rehabilitation seriously. In the end, it may present a worst-case scenario, but it does so with unusual depth and conviction.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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