Boy A

The young man sitting in the prison conference room seems perfectly harmless. He has an open smile and a simple, grateful demeanor. You wonder how anyone this meek could have survived in prison. He is being released now, as an adult, after serving several years for a heinous crime he participated in as a child. Is this the face of a killer? Is this a monster? And if so, has he been rehabilitated?

He was called “Boy A” at the trial, but his real name was Eric. Boy B, whose real name was Philip, committed suicide in prison a few years ago. Boy A gets to choose a new name now that he’s being released. That, plus the fact that he’s matured and no longer looks like the 10-year-old who went to prison, will help him keep his past a secret as he goes out into the world. The legal system has sealed his juvenile record. He has a clean slate.

“Boy A” is about the notion of clean slates. It asks whether it’s possible to truly leave your past behind you. It asks whether society as a whole, or people individually, can ever really forgive someone. It does this with heartbreaking precision and insight as it examines the troubled life of Boy A.

He’s calling himself Jack now, and he’s played by Andrew Garfield, the 25-year-old actor who already won a BAFTA award in England for this performance. Jack’s government case worker is Terry (Peter Mullan), a kind, fatherly man whose own familial relationships have suffered because of his dedication to his work. (The film’s one noteworthy flaw is the trite manner in which this aspect of Terry’s life is handled.) Terry helps Jack get settled, find a job, find an apartment, and so forth. He checks in with him regularly. Above all, he tells Jack, don’t tell anyone your past, no matter how much you think you can trust them not to freak out. There are people who are furious that Boy A is being let out of prison, and they would do anything to find out where he is now.

Jack’s job is at a delivery company, loading and unloading vans with Chris (Shaun Evans), a young man about his same age who likes to get into trouble. As the interspersed flashbacks reveal, it was hanging out with troublemakers that got young Jack/Eric into hot water in the first place. One night when Jack and Chris are at a party, a fight erupts and Jack steps in to rescue his friend. His violent streak emerges — a sign of the “monster” he is? Or simply a reaction to seeing his friend in danger?

He starts dating Michelle (Katie Lyons), a nice girl who works in the office at the delivery company. His interactions with her remind us that he spent all of his adolescence behind bars. In many ways, he’s still naive and immature.

The film, directed by John Crowley (“Intermission”) and based on Jonathan Trigell’s novel, rides entirely on Garfield’s emotional performance as Jack. It’s imperative that we sympathize with him, that we see him as he sees himself — not as a killer, but as a scared, humbled young man with a terrible stain on his record. Garfield accomplishes this from the very first scene, and our eagerness to see him succeed never falters. Crucially, Jack never tries to downplay the enormity of his sins; if anything, he feels guiltier than we think he ought to. Terry’s rooting for him, and so are we.

But there are no easy answers, and “Boy A” is a bleak, emotionally draining film. It’s all well and good to talk of second chances and fresh starts, but how do you really move past something like this? (We never learn the graphic details of what Boys A and B did, but we know it resulted in a girl’s death.) Is it possible to truly start over? Can good acts cancel out bad ones? Does saving one person’s life make up for having taken someone else’s?

With a fine supporting cast and steely, atmospheric cinematography by Rob Hardy, “Boy A” takes us on a troubling and cathartic journey. It’s a sad movie, no question — but like most great drama, it inspires admiration for its thoughtfulness and its craft.

A- (1 hr., 40 min.; R, plenty of harsh profanity, brief partial nudity and a scene of fairly strong sexuality, brief violence.)