Jan. 4th, 2014

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I'd never heard of Oscar Wilde's fable about "The Selfish Giant," so I admit that I spent a good portion of Clio Barnard's new film trying to work out how the title was applicable to the story. There are no literal giants in sight. Instead, we meet two boys from a poor neighborhood in Northern England, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Was one of these two the metaphorical Giant?

Arbor is the more noticeably troubled of the pair, who has behavioral problems that require medication, is contemptuous of authority, and uncontrollable by his harried mother. Early on in the film, he gets himself permanently expelled from school for going too far when he defends Swifty from bullies. Arbor is happy about the development, because it gives him more time to earn money by collecting or stealing metal objects around town to sell for scrap. But Arbor is a scrawny kid and it's hard to call his actions selfish when they're frequently the result of good, if misguided, intentions. What about Swifty, his larger, more hulking friend? He's even less likely as a candidate for the role of the Selfish Giant. Swifty helps Arbor go scrapping, but he has a much gentler temperament and frequently serves as the voice of reason. He also has a brighter outlook for the future, with a particular knack for handling horses.

Maybe the Selfish Giant is Kitten (Sean Gilder), the owner of the local scrap yard who pays the boys for the collected metal and rents out his horse and trap to them to bring in bigger hauls. He's a mean old cheat who none-too-subtly encourages the boys to steal and vandalize, because they'll receive lesser punishments than an adult if they're caught. However, he's clearly a secondary character to the two boys, one antagonist among dozens who they have to contend with. Arbor and Swifty both come from dysfunctional homes run by exhausted mothers and hostile fathers. Everyone is poor, everyone is desperate, and there are no visible alternatives to living this way. Violence is a constant in their lives, where adults don't hesitate to get physical to show their disapproval, accompanied by streams of verbal abuse. As terrible as Arbor's behavior is, it's hard to blame him when you look at his role models and environment.

Stories of children surviving on the brink have been a mainstay of cinema for decades. Often the kids are idealized little saints, so it was nice to have a protagonist like Arbor, whose mean-spirited antics and bald-faced greed would test the patience of any adult. For the majority of the film's running time it seemed inevitable that he would grow up to become another crook Kitten or another disinterested father. Though I sympathized with him I found it difficult to root for him, because Arbor getting his way would almost certainly lead to trouble for both himself and everyone around him. The best thing in his life is clearly Swifty, but is the friendship really beneficial for either of the boys? Nearly all the adults in the film name Arbor as a bad influence. Even Swifty himself admits as much. So why are they friends?

This is Clio Barnard's first narrative feature after she rose to prominence with the innovative documentary "The Arbor." She both wrote and directed. Her stark images of poverty and avoidance of artifice are reminiscent of similar coming-of-age features by Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach. However, there are also the placid transitional shots of cooling towers and power transformers, of animals peacefully grazing in the fields that the boys traverse. We see that their world isn't entirely miserable and unpleasant, and though the characters are often awful to each other, there are moments of humanity and redemption too. Friendship and sacrifice are the major themes film, as they were the major themes of "The Selfish Giant" fairy tale, which inspired it. And the longer I thought about it, after reading up on Oscar Wilde's original, the more I was sure that the Giant wasn't any of the characters in the film, but rather something bigger and less defined. Something spiritual, perhaps.

Make no mistake that "The Selfish Giant" is an unrelentingly harsh and bleak film. Though some of the characters do find a measure of redemption, the audience isn't likely to take much comfort in it. However, I was surprised at how moving I found the film, thanks in large part to the performances of the two young actors, and the candidness of the filmmaking. The story is strong, with unexpected twists and turns, including an intense illegal racing scene with the horses on a public rode that would have come at the end of a more conventional project. But most vitally, "The Selfish Giant" does a wonderful job of capturing a particularly brutal time and place and culture that gives its simple story so much power.

I can't wait to see what Clio Barnard does next.


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