By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published May 02, 2001 at 2:46 AM

There are two kinds of movies in the "coming-of-age" genre. One involves a rosy and warm-hearted reflection on childhood and growing up, such as the recent "My Dog Skip." The main character learns valuable life lessons and lives in a PG-rated world. Movies like this are harmless and fine entertainment for the whole family.

The other kind isn't so sunny and full of hope. They bleak and tragic and generally depressing. Childhood is presented as a tough, cruel and unfair part of life. "Ratcatcher," from writer and director Lynne Ramsay, is the second kind.

The tone is set early on. Two boys are playing around a canal near where they live. The boys, who appear to be friends, start wrestling in the water, laughing and having a good time. But things suddenly get rough and one boy ends up under the water. He never comes back up.

James (William Eadie), the surviving boy, becomes the main character. It is the early '70s and he is poor and lives in Glasgow, Scotland with his mother, father and two sisters. Deeply troubled by what transpired in the canal and unhappy with his life at home, James dreams of going to a far away place.

The family has dreams of its own. They are desperately trying to get out of the slums (where garbage bags lie all over the streets) and into some new housing in another part of town. They are waiting for inspectors to come around and examine their current living conditions.

"Ratcatcher" is an uncompromising and harrowing look at childhood boasting an extraordinary lead performance from Eadie. Child actors everywhere could learn a thing or two from him. Despite this being his movie debut, he looks as if he's been doing it for years.

Also doing exemplary work are cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler and composer Rachel Portman (an Oscar nominee for "Chocolat"). Kuchler makes the film look appropriately dreary yet striking, and Portman's score is beautiful.

The biggest weakness is the decision to use subtitles despite the movie being in English. Granted, the accents are quite thick, but almost every word is still intelligible. The subtitles are a minor distraction and seem completely unnecessary, especially since many of the slang and dialect words aren't "translated" for the American audience.

But "Ratcatcher" is too powerful to be hindered much by small flaws. It's a heart-breaking and unforgettable look at growing up in poverty.

Grade: A-

"Ratcatcher" opens Fri., May 4 at The Times Theatre.