MRR Review: "The Selfish Giant"

Photo Credit: Sundance Selects

MRR Review: "The Selfish Giant"

Rating: Unrated
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 2013
Directed by: Clio Barnard
Genre: Drama

Clio Barnard's tale of two boys trying to survive in a blighted town in Northern England may share a name with Oscar Wilde's tale of a giant and his garden, but it bears very little resemblance to the story that inspired it. Instead, "The Selfish Giant" introduces audiences to life on the edge of poverty as seen through the eyes of a pair of young boys trying to make their way in the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire. The story is based on a pair of young men whom Barnard met while working on her previous film, the documentary "The Arbor."

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is anything but swift, a large, gentle boy who often finds himself the target of bullies. His friend Arbor (Conner Chapman) is his ever-present defender, a small, wiry boy whose hyperactive disorder leaves him prone to kamikaze rages. Both boys come from poor families whose utilities are constantly under threat from unpaid bills and whose dinner might be whatever they can scrounge. Arbor and Swifty look for ways to earn money, both for themselves and for their impoverished families.

The quest for cash leads them to Kitten (Sean Gilder), a scrap dealer who is willing to pay for metal and isn't too worried about where it comes from. Kitten's yard is a hangout for the local children, whom he employs because it's easier to shortchange a child. Arbor and Swifty take to scavenging metal, even coming to understand the lure of "bright wire"—copper wiring that can be extremely dangerous to steal but very lucrative. Swifty also finds himself drawn to Kitten's horses, and the unscrupulous dealer sees a possible way to leverage the boy's affinity with the animals into a job as a jockey. As Swifty becomes Kitten's new favorite, Arbor's jealousy leads him to draw his friend into more and more dangerous situations until fate catches up with them in a terrible way.

Audiences may find the dialect and setting a bit difficult to follow at first, given that the film is set in a part of England even less familiar to most Americans than the sprawling metropolis of London. Fortunately, the film uses subtitles for those who would find these regional accents too difficult to follow in their natural cadence. The story is universal enough, however, and even in the unfamiliar setting, it will strike a chord with anyone who has ever lived in or around poverty.

Grim is the word of the day here as the film displays life on the bottom rung with an unflinching, honest, and brutal gaze. From the urban wasteland the boys inhabit to the hopeless cast of supporting characters, all resigned to a life that didn't work out the way they expected it to, the film offers very little to inspire hope or wonder. Even the diversion of a cart race has an air of desperation about it, a crowd cheering on the chaotic, dangerous spectacle because at least it will distract them from their misery for a moment. Unlike other films that focus on the poor, this isn't a tale about aspiration or finding a way to escape to a better life. In Bradford, this is life, and anyone expecting it to improve is just fooling himself.

The heart of the story in the midst of this misery is the relationship between the two boys, and director Barnard made a risky choice when it came to casting. Instead of putting two professional actors in the lead roles, she cast Arbor and Swifty directly off the Bradford estates. Since both boys grew up in and around the very kind of conditions depicted in the film, they bring an authenticity to it that even the best child actors would have struggled to display. As their lives deteriorate and Arbor begins to lead Swifty into more and more dangerous situations, Barnard displays just how the crushing economic conditions limit the lives of these children, who should be looking ahead to a future full of possibilities. Instead, they're trapped in the present, never thinking of the future beyond the next payoff that will stave off hunger and creditors a few more days.

"The Selfish Giant" is a wrenching film, one that draws audiences in and makes them care about the lives of these two young men, all the while whispering that it isn't going to turn out okay. The story and the performances of these two remarkable young actors are well worth experiencing—but few viewers will want to revisit this emotionally draining story often.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5