The Selfish Giant | Review
Riding on the Shoulders of Giants: Barnard Dexterously Makes a Go of Modern British Neo-Realism
The depiction of tumultuous youth enduring the harsh realities of their unfortunate upbringings has a long lineage that ties Clio Barnard’s devastating Cannes preemed first fiction feature, all the way back to Ken Loach’s masterly neo-realist depiction of the British working class of Kes with startling resemblance. Barnard’s modern take on the subject sets a pair of expelled youngsters in the blue collar outskirts of Derby and sees them suffer the negligence of their families, the insults of classmates, and the extortion of local scrap collectors only to find that life is sometimes nothing more than an emotional endurance test in which we must plod along at varying degrees of compliance. And yet, despite the gloom and doom nature of her subject, there is a warm naturalism in her depiction of the working class and the relationships between children that percolates below the surface. The Selfish Giant stands in acknowledgement of those great British proletarian films that came before and tries to step forward, wilfully and graciously, seeking truth beyond the dialect and depravity.
Newcomer Conner Chapman embodies Arbor, a wily, whip smart kid with a debilitating case of ADHD and a tendency to act out in the face of authority. His divorced mother is overwhelmed by his inability to engage in school and his older brother’s frenetic addiction to prescription drugs, so the youngster is left to run the streets with his slightly older, much more restrained mate, Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who has a gift with horses and whose own homelife is wrought with the consequences of parental debt and verbal abuse. Forging their own escape with only a pony pulled card and dreams of monetarily aiding their families, they begin collecting metal from around town – first discarded pans and the like, later stealing massive spools of copper wire – to pawn off at the local scrap yard for cash.
Though the film bears little resemblance, Barnard was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s tale of the same namesake, the giant here being Kitten (Sean Gilder), a slimy scrap yard owner who only allows Arbor and Swifty on the premises to take advantage of the children’s naiveté, short changing them on their recouped goods and encouraging them to rip off the local electrical company for heavy duty cable for his own scot-free benefit. After learning of Swifty’s talent with equines, Kitten even enrolls Swifty to ride for him in a high stakes sulky race, shooing his reckless and chatty younger friend away, creating a gulf between them.
Too smart for his own good and now free of Swifty’s reserved opinion, Arbor takes Kitten’s implicit advice to heart and aims to pilfer some of Kitten’s own materials to sell at competing scrap yards, but the move backfires and gets both, he and his empathetic friend, in grave danger. It is in the subsequently shocking sequence that Kitten’s increasingly troublous orders reap vengeance upon he and the entire rural community that has, up to this point, been dismissively complicit in his obviously extortive relationship with the boys.
In Wilde’s original story, the giant selfishly keeps children from his fruitful garden by building a wall to keep them out, eventually realizing the folly of his ways and atoning for his greed by welcoming the children back to play in his garden once again. By comparison, the consequences of Kitten’s ways are far more grim, but his penance no less moving. Barnard’s keen direction, highlighted in this swift moment of profundity, steers clear of Wilde’s characteristic melodrama, resulting in a powerful work of cinema that subtly captures the traumas of domestic neglect in a world continually struggling with poverty and addiction. Giving in its genuine affection for its young leads and wholly prescient in the issues it takes to task, The Selfish Giant is anything but stingy.