“So fuckin’ delicate, people … they die so easily,” says a supporting character to the titular Boy A, whose barely audible two-word reply — “She didn’t” — collapses his violent past into his remorseful present with offhand poignancy. Boy A knows that people don’t always die easily, but he’s haunted by firsthand knowledge of life’s fragility.

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Past imperfect

Adapted by Mark O’Rowe from Jonathan Trigell’s novel, and directed by John Crowley, Boy A is a brutally soulful film about a young man trying to forge a new life and identity after serving time for a murder he committed as a youth. The film is both smart and devastating as it unthreads interwoven questions about redemption, justice and the pivotal role of history in shaping an individual and his actions. The strengths are many: marvelous performances; a pitch-perfect harmonizing of subplots within the main story; exquisitely but unobtrusively artful composition; a challenging script that makes seamless connections between issues of violence (both domestic and societal) and failed social contracts (in the family, school, workplace and pub); a scathing commentary on media fear-mongering and a gullible public that lets itself be too easily duped. At times, Boy A comes off a tad schematic, its parallelism a bit too heavy-handed, but the performances eventually trump these minor flaws.

When the film begins, “Boy A” — Eric Wilson, a nationally notorious child murderer — is being released from a juvenile prison in Britain. Now an adult, Eric is introduced picking a new name, Jack Burridge, and prepping for life in a town far from the scene of his crime. Alfie Owen plays the psychically wounded preteen Eric; Andrew Garfield plays the adult Jack, investing him with an initially cloying tremulousness that soon blossoms into a more shaded sorrow. Jack’s only connection to the past is his caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan), who adores him like a son, much to the fury of Terry’s own troubled son. At his new job, Jack’s shy, goodhearted demeanor — he’s childlike in many ways — quickly wins over his working-class co-workers and catches the eye of the ballsy, sexually assertive office manager, Michelle (Katie Lyons). As his new relationships deepen, Jack finds himself torn between the desire to reveal his past to his mates and girlfriend and the need to protect his secret.

But the past keeps edging into the present via dreams and inopportune flashbacks, none of which the film announces or sets off in any special way, creating for the audience the same unsettling, boundary-leaping fusion of past and present that Jack experiences. The effect is to give the film a low-hum sense of tension and anxiety that slowly escalates. It’s through these scenes that we learn about Jack’s depressing childhood as a punching bag for bullies, a verbal target for scornful teachers and an unwanted nuisance to his parents. Not until he meets fellow schoolboy Philip (Taylor Doherty), a burgeoning sociopath who becomes his best friend and protector, does Jack experience his first loving relationship. Philip’s own horrifying back story, however, has made him a walking time bomb, and the duo’s petty crimes soon culminate in the murder of a schoolgirl.

Refusing easy answers while leaving absolutely no question where it stands, Boy A is an unabashed bleeding-heart film, but a tough one. It believes in second chances, and that human nature is composed of shades of gray. It would rather look into the roots and conditions that go into the making of society’s so-called monsters than coast on glib language about evil or corruption. Crowley, his cast and the script constantly reveal new layers to the characters, preventing simple labels like “hero” or “villain.” These people are all cringingly human.

The film strikes two especially strong notes (though, generally, there are no bum ones): First, there’s the way Boy A handles Philip’s harrowing defense of Jack against the crew of bullies who terrorize him as a child. We’ve already been primed by the film to take the full and debilitating measure of everyday violence when Crowley turns the tables, and we find ourselves cheering the frenzied beating that Philip doles out. Crowley understands the human desire for revenge and the satisfaction that violence can bring — especially when you feel that you’re in the right — but he also knows it’s a slippery slope, and he gradually underlines the horror of the moment without engaging in cheap “gotcha” moralizing. Second, the director and Katie Lyons rescue a “monster” of another stripe: Plump, quick-witted and sexually adventurous, Lyons’ Michelle is the type of female character at whom the movies routinely sneer and turn into a caricature. Here, she’s a thing of true beauty; we absolutely understand Jack’s visceral attraction to Michelle and the anguish he feels at the thought of losing her.

BOY A | Directed by JOHN CROWLEY | Written by MARK O’ROWE, based on the novel by JONATHAN TRIGELL | Produced by NICK MARSTON, TALLY GARNER and LYNN HORSFORD | Released by the Weinstein Company | Nuart

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