Last Night's TV: Hug-a-hoodie drama gets an A-minus

Boy A, Channel 4; Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, BBC4
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The Independent Culture

Good intentions get a bad press: the road to Hell is paved with them, and the qualifier "well-intentioned" usually goes in front of some moderately insulting term - "bungling" or "idiot". Given the quantity of really bad intentions floating about the place, though, you'd think encouraging good intentions was a priority. I certainly don't mean it as any kind of insult when I say Boy A was positively seething with good intentions, especially given that the drama was set in an area where good intentions are in short supply.

The film followed the life of "Jack Burridge", a young man who has served many years for a particularly nasty crime he and another boy committed when he was 10; associations with James Bulger are unavoidable, though Jonathan Trigell, author of the novel on which it was based, has denied that was what he meant. The other boy, Philip, killed himself, but Jack has grown up, in every sense and is a thoroughly decent, likeable young man. Released on probation, with his new name and a new life-story, he finds himself bizarrely fresh to the world: he hasn't gone through all the usual adolescent initiations and disappointments; he doesn't pick up pop cultural references - "Who's David Brent?"; he doesn't know how to talk to girls; and he is a little bit alarmed by the idea of a DVD. The script overdid this aspect of things slightly (I'm betting they watch TV and read newspapers in young offenders' centres), but Andrew Garfield, in a hugely appealing performance, pinpointed the fragile balance of fears Jack experiences: he's terrified of all this novelty, but even more terrified that it will be taken away from him. He's also terrified of himself - every compliment sends a spasm of unease across his face: when a colleague tells him he's a "good mate", he can't help remembering being told this by the boy who dragged him into murder.

A large part of the pleasure of the film came from watching Jack negotiate his way through the world, settling into his new job at a delivery company, plucking up courage to ask out the nice girl in the office who clearly fancies him: this was touching, because so familiar, and yet with the stakes so much higher. At every turn, Jack is terrified that he'll betray himself by some slip, or that somebody will recognise him (the tabloids are casting around for his scent, and are plastered with headlines such as "Evil comes of age"); and as he falls deeper in love, he is desperate to tell the girl - it is his probation officer, played with marvellous warmth and authority by Peter Mullan, who forbids it. For a while, everything goes well: he asks the girl out, discovers sex, falls in love with her; at work, he makes friends, and even becomes a hero when, out on a delivery job, he and a mate spot a crashed car and rescue a small girl. Indeed, with things going this well it isn't hard to work out that doom must be impending pretty darn soon; and it shows up on cue, in the shape of a posse of newspaper reporters camped outside Jack's front door. Jack's second chance is destroyed, and he doesn't have much faith that there'll be another one.

What made this so involving and watchable were, precisely, its good intentions: Mark O'Rowe and John Crowley, the writer and director, were determined to get the viewer on Jack's side, to force on you not just the possibility but the certainty of redemption, so that you would feel the full force of his tragedy. But it needed a little more dispassion and ambiguity: the flashbacks to Jack's childhood and the circumstances of the murder felt like a case for the defence - hostile father, dying mother, accomplice a kind of warped demon-child - rather than a genuine attempt to get inside his head. You never felt that redemption was much of an issue, when Jack was obviously redeemed from the start. When Garfield was off the screen, too, you noticed how schematic the filmwas, particularly the subplot, involving the probation officer's relationship with his ne'er-do-well son, the ultimate source of Jack's betrayal; and the ending - Jack's suicide heavily implied - felt too much like a bid for seriousness. What if Jack had lived - what if the freshness had worn off, and we'd seen his hard-won decency struggling with humdrum reality? That would have been a real drama.

There was another lost boy in Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives: Mark Everett, aka E, lead-singer of the American indie band Eels, went in search of his father, Hugh Everett, who first formulated the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which every second we are shedding, like feathers, an infinity of possible worlds. The boy's bleak relationship with his depressive dead father, and the weirdness of Everett Snr's imagined universe (explained with something close to lucidity), promised something rich and strange; but Mark's whiny, self-pitying tone - no surprise, if you've ever listened to an Eels album - was offputting. In another possible world, I didn't spend an hour of my life on this.

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