After Thomas

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8-10 p.m., Sunday, April 22
BBC America

This harrowing but singularly inspiring BBC America film is perhaps one of the more intelligently wrought tearjerkers you'll ever see, one that grabs you by the gut and takes you on a massively compelling ride. Those who produce made-for-TV movies in the U.S. could learn a thing or two from the British production team that crafted "After Thomas," and the point is made at the beginning that this won't be like many docudramas we've experienced.

Whereas it's common on these shores to note that a film is "based on a true story," "inspired by a true story" or the divertingly vague "inspired by actual events" (as opposed to fictional ones), this spells it out right onscreen: "This is a true story." Ka-pow! And it plays like one, with dynamic performances and a story line so real it's often excruciatingly difficult to watch.

The subject here is the heartbreaking and little-understood issue of child autism, with "Thomas" detailing the wrenching real-life struggle of Nicola (Keeley Hawes) and Rob Graham (Ben Miles) to break through and communicate with their autistic 6-year-old son, Kyle (Andrew Bryne in an astonishingly good turn). Kyle suffers from one of the more extreme forms of the debilitating condition: He is incapable of responding to, or dispensing, affection to most external stimuli, which serves to frustrate and devastate his devoted parents while putting an incalculable strain on their crumbling marriage.

Seemingly the only thing that captures Kyle's interest is the children's TV show "Thomas the Tank Engine" and the train toys featured on the series. But it isn't nearly enough to mitigate what becomes an increasingly desperate situation.

Rob wants to send Kyle to a boarding school for autistic kids, while Nicola fights it, giving up her life to communicate with her wholly unresponsive son. At their breaking point, the Grahams buy a golden retriever in the hope that a pet could help unlock the bolted doors to Kyle's psyche. They name the pooch Thomas (after Kyle's favorite TV character), and the results of the canine companionship would exceed their wildest hopes.

Indeed, the dog has a miraculous impact, turning on the light of awareness in a way thought unfathomable. Today, the actual Kyle (named Dale in real life) is 18 and virtually unrecognizable from the shut-off lad we see throughout much of "Thomas."

Yet despite that shamelessly uplifting story line, the film proves revelatory in a way that's anything but sappy and maudlin. It earns its tears honestly, with scribe Lindsey Hill infusing the dialogue with genuine heartache and heart in equal measure and director Simon Shore inspiring magnificent, poignant work from his players. In particular, young Bryne is simply phenomenal in a role that called for such raw emotion.

I defy anyone to watch this film and not be significantly moved. "Thomas" is so difficult to watch through its first half that I actually had to flip it off twice to gather myself, putting myself in the position of the anxiety-riddled parents. It's hard to imagine a film capturing the subject with greater intensity and believability.

AFTER THOMAS
BBC AMERICA
BBC
Credits: Executive producers: Beryl Vertue, Kathryn Mitchell
Producer: Elaine Cameron
Teleplay: Lindsey Hill
Director: Simon Shore
Director of photography: Ian Liggett
Editor: Jamie McCoan
Composer: Colin Winston Fletcher
Casting: Kate Rhodes James
Child casting: Pippa Hall
Cast:
Nicola Graham: Keeley Hawes
Rob Graham: Ben Miles
Kyle Graham: Andrew Bryne
Granny Pat: Sheila Hancock
Grandpa Jim: Duncan Preston
John Havers: Clive Mantle
Paula Murray: Noma Dumezweni
Kate: Kate Fleetwood
Chris: Susan Porrett
Rachel: Lorraine Pilkington
Susie: Veronica Roberts
Phil: Chris Larkin
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