The Selfish Giant gives off an aroma of a film that will be remembered for a very long time. The staying power of its troubled characters as well as the painfully realistic portrayal of a down-and-out community in Northern England are quite remarkable.
This directorial feature debut from British director Clio Barnard trails the life of two young troublemakers trying to make sense of their early teens. Both boys always yearn to help either their struggling family or friends. The loudest of the duo Arbor (played by Conner Chapman) hates to see his pal Swifty picked on. In fact, it’s Arbor’s adamant roughness that gets himself and Swifty (played by Shaun Thomas) suspended from school.
Swifty, who is only asked to leave for 10 days, is Arbor’s rock. Rather than enabling Arbor’s rowdiness, he’s usually helping the foul-mouthed rebel soothe down after adults treat the twosome with brash language and constant discipline.
It’s stupefying how natural Chapman and Thomas are in front of the camera. Each line and pause all feel habitually motivated. A large portion of the film feels as if we’re infringing on their hang outs.
The youngsters also decline any chance to beg movie goers for sentimentality or easy reactions. These are two actors who understand that the story and reacting to those subtle beats are essential parts to making this viscerally moving film succeed. These are old souls who are showing rather quickly that they have the hang of acting.
Some – if not all – of The Selfish Giant is tough going to watch. Whenever families are the prime focus, there’s always chaos. There’s always a collection of disarray happening in small spaces with blue language being whipped around. It all looks and feels just as invasive as watching the leading boys by themselves.
Barnard hasn’t overdone the purity within these moments, which is a great sign of what’s to come with her filmmaking career. We don’t find too many details about the different adults other than hearing local gabbing on the school yard and seeing visual cues that give us just enough to draw conclusions. These scenes come at full force one after another during the first act – undoubtably disarming. But, once we are sucked into these stressful environments, it’s hard to veer our interests away from the candid calamities.
As we watch Arbor and Swifty slowly enter a working man’s world as they earn money for collecting scrap metal, the lack of a concrete narrative never feels like a problem. Arbor and Swifty dig through heaps and keep their eyes open for available wires to steal and sell. Those illegal activities are what drive the film forward, adding extra nervousness while elaborating onto and reinforcing Chapman and Thomas’ characters. Observing how Swifty becomes more outgoing and how Arbor develops jealousy towards him is a forceful dynamic.
For Arbor, the scrapyard is just the life for him that fits his hyperactive interests. Swifty, on the other hand, finds his calling when he’s allowed to tame and tend to the horses around the scrapyard. In a lot of ways, this free pace around unique symbols resembles Cilo Barnard’s film to Harmony Korine’s audacious directorial debut, Gummo. What separates the two films, however, is that The Selfish Giant has more of a filmmaker’s professionalism to it. It also has more of a direct focus on portraying youthfulness and less inclinations to shock the audience.
When an earth-shattering climactic event drops, the audience feels the impact from every possible direction in a matter of seconds. It’s hard to take in. Mostly because we don’t want to accept that it’s real. Barnard handles the consequences that carry out in all the correct ways. Her direction, along with her screenplay, is instinctive with the audience’s perceptions. Just as the actors have shown, this filmmaker has shown – yet again – how strong she is at her craft.
As the end of the first month of 2014 grows near, I feel happy to know the bar is being set high for phenomenal indies. The Selfish Giant has me excited to tell people about this accomplished work, and has me eager to see what Clio Barnard, Conner Chapman, and Shaun Thomas will do next.