Terry assures him that the stains of his sin have been cleansed by repentance. Yet, asks John Crowley's exceptional drama, can you forgive the adult for what he did as a child?
Garfield's urgent performance (honored this year with a BAFTA, the British Oscar) can be watched only with heart in throat. His Jack is a child in a man's lanky body, unsteady, but with an innate gallantry that touches his coworkers at a parcel-delivery service who think his prison time was for stealing cars.
Everything is new to him. Being on his own, working for a living, socializing with girls - like robust Michelle (Katie Lyons), an easygoing secretary who openly flirts with Jack and sweeps him off his shaky feet. Much to her surprise, the vulnerable boy softens her brittle heart. He is so defenseless that he seems to have no skin. Michelle isn't the only one who feels parental toward this gentle soul with the savage secret.
And the closer they get, the more Jack wants to tell her everything, even while Terry strongly advises against it. Seems the tabloids have put a bounty on Boy A's head, and staying undercover is the only way of staying alive. Garfield (who had a showy role in Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs) is so transparent an actor that Jack's internal tension is wrung on his furrowed forehead.
Adapted from Jonathan Trigell's novel - itself inspired by a notorious 1993 case in Liverpool - Boy A employs literary foreshadowing and echoing that are subtler in a novel than they are in film. Yet along with Garfield and the splendid Scottish actor Mullan, Crowley brings great tact to this bruising saga of atonement and moral regeneration. Though a bad seed can bring forth good fruit, will others want to pick it?
Boy A ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by John Crowley. With Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan and Katie Lyons. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parent's guide: Rated R (profanity, sexuality, disturbing content, mature themes, brief drugs)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/