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A social welfare counselor's best intentions for a troubled teen create in Jim McKay's immensely engrossing "Angel." For all the fresh observation and humanist realism in McKay's previous work, the director eaches a new level of sophistication and cinematic power in the new pic.

Nicole - Rachel Griffiths Angel - Jonan Everett Henry - Denis O'Hare Raymond - Wallace Little Jamie - Jon Norman Schneider Heather - Catherine Kellner Angel's Father - David Zayas

A social welfare counselor’s best intentions for a troubled teen create in Jim McKay’s immensely engrossing “Angel.” For all the fresh observation and humanist realism in McKay’s previous work (“Girls Town,” “Our Song”), the director — with regular screenwriting partner Hannah Weyer — reaches a new level of sophistication and cinematic power in the new pic. Given the extraordinary and quietly wrought performances by Rachel Griffiths and savvy newcomer Jonan Everett, HBO would be wise to carve a theatrical window before cable airings.

With “Angel,” McKay’s cinema can be discussed in the same breath as that of fellow social realists Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers, especially as concerns attention to the central characters’ everyday actions. Even more gratifying is McKay’s confidence that auds will follow wherever the camera and story go — even if that means an ambiguous ending.

In a script stripped of exposition and compressed to a roughly 36-hour time frame, McKay and Weyer’s most daring gambit is at the start, as the pic drops into the life of high schooler Angel (Everett), who’s staying at the comfy Gotham home of Nicole (Griffiths) and husband Henry (Denis O’Hare). The relationship between the woman and boy remains undefined for more than a reel, but their actions and talk suggest a world of detail, as she wants to make sure he’s comfortable and safe in her home but also that he understands he must begin taking responsibility for his life.

Angel, it emerges, has been kicked out of his home by his father (David Zayas, who appears later in a single, highly effective scene). Nicole decides to put him up for the night. Despite his skills as a computer technician, Angel is compromising his future with petty thefts, cutting classes and functioning far below his potential. Most telling is how he seems aware of his habit for screwing up, a character detail best expressed non-verbally by the sensitive Everett, whose face betrays a life riddled with hurt and disappointment.

In the morning, Angel must steel himself for a family meeting with his father and Nicole, but in the meantime, he checks in with computer game-addicted pal Raymond (Wallace Little) and, later, transvestite Jamie (Jon Norman Schneider), both of whom hint at variations on the dead-end life Angel may stumble into. In an image that speaks volumes about Angel’s state of mind, he removes his belongings from Nicole’s and stashes them in a hiding spot at a freeway underpass.

Two of Angel’s encounters — one with his father, another with the father’s g.f. back home (Denise Burse) — aren’t the stuff of obvious dramatic fireworks, but are devastating nevertheless, indicating, along with a failed computer job interview, that Angel’s prospects are narrowing by the hour. Meanwhile, an inexcusable faux pas on the boy’s part toward Nicole may alienate her permanently.

The tension between caring for her own family — she’s pregnant and pondering her own future — and for the social world in which Angel is her most immediate problem — makes Nicole a fascinating maternal character — one that Griffiths fills with etail. Seemingly a superior professional and sensitive listener, Griffiths’ Nicole is trembling underneath. One of the ironies of “Angel” is how the pic leaves her on a note less certain than the confused teen.

McKay’s nuanced handling leaves the Fat Albert-ish Raymond and the queeny Jamie just short of stereotype, but they still seem like the film’s uneasy bid for comic relief. Other supporting players appear briefly, but leave strong impressions long after they’re gone.

McKay’s control is evident, and his choice of a clean and unfussy style — supported by lenser Chad Davidson, editor Alex Hall and production designer Ben Barraud — is impressive and wise. The inspired casting is by Alexa L. Fogel and Andrew J. Fox.

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Production: An HBO Films presentation of a Journeyman Pictures production in association with C-Hundred Film Corp. Produced by Paul Mezey. (International sales, HBO Enterprises, New York.) Directed by Jim McKay. Screenplay, McKay, Hannah Weyer.

Crew: Camera (color), Chad Davidson; editor, Alex Hall; production designer, Ben Barraud; art director, Anu Schwartz; costume designer, Mel Ottenberg; sound (Dolby Digital), Judy Karp; supervising sound editor, Paul P. Soucek; line producer, Becky Glupczynski; associate producer, Jeremy Kipp Walker; assistant director, Adam Escott; casting, Alexa L. Fogel, Andrew J. Fox. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 14, 2005. Running time: 86 MIN.

With: Nicole - Rachel Griffiths Angel - Jonan Everett Henry - Denis O'Hare Raymond - Wallace Little Jamie - Jon Norman Schneider Heather - Catherine Kellner Angel's Father - David Zayas

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