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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Angel' works quietly, patiently, and effectively

Angel Rodriguez, 17, stands alone in his counselor's Brooklyn kitchen eating chocolate cake. He devours each bite, his jaw working strenuously, but he doesn't taste anything. He stares into the middle distance, anticipating a life on the streets of New York, free of his father, who has kicked him out, and free of his father's girlfriend, whom he despises. He chews, he swallows, he puts stolen money and objects in his bag, he leaves.

Later that night in HBO's "Angel Rodriguez," which premieres tonight at 9, Nicole stands alone in the same kitchen eating cereal. Angel's counselor at the Bridge social center, she has discovered Angel's theft, and she chews and stares ahead. Pregnant, she is imagining giving up social service and the likes of Angel, staying home to nurture her own baby, reconnecting with her distant husband. She chews and chews her comfort food, uncomforted.

And so goes director Jim McKay's most unusual movie, in which time and emptiness are used to convey realism. "Angel Rodriguez" breaks every rule of TV pacing, as it ambles forward pensively, letting the actors breathe and inhabit their characters, inviting us to feel who they are rather than telling us. The deepest drama lies on the actors' ambivalent faces, in the long silences between the lines of dialogue. The story takes place in our imaginations as we observe, not in a script that explicates.

Watching this slice of life, I kept waiting for an overt plot to take over, until I willingly let go into McKay's urban world of vagaries and suggestion. "Angel" is the anti-"24," in that it does employ real time but then doesn't work feverishly to distract us from real time. And yet despite the movie's seeming aimlessness, it accumulates into something clear and compelling. As Angel and Nicole go through their day, intersecting and then not intersecting, we follow them and gradually see that they're both at important crossroads. Their central struggles -- his to find a future, hers to find a present -- are playing out cloaked in the mundane.

As Angel, newcomer Jonan Everett carries the movie. His face and eyes are transparent as he veers from normal adolescent angst to unchanneled rage to goofiness with his buddies. One of Angel's friends at the Bridge is a young transvestite who flirts with him, and you almost expect him to look at her with contempt. But Everett knows his character better than that; Angel responds to her attentions because they are positive, even while he rejects her sexual advances. Everett is right in the moment throughout.

Rachel Griffiths is effective as Nicole, and far from the queenly dramatics of her role as Brenda on "Six Feet Under." Her Nicole is sincerely longing to do good work and yet coming up against kids who are as unmovable as brick walls. Her offer of talk therapy is nothing next to their hard-learned invulnerabilities. She looks at Angel and sees a teenager whose heart and ambition have been perverted by family and economic circumstances, and she tries to restore his promise. And perhaps she can help him over the long run, but at what cost to her own life? Her optimism is fading.

"Angel" is an extraordinary movie for viewers who are in no hurry, who are satisfied just having their compassion and understanding tested for 90 minutes. Human nature is on display here, but not in flagrante so much as inconspicuously. And so is hope, if you can wait for it.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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