The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a piece of work that aims to capture reality as is and not dilute it—even only slightly—for mass public consumption. What results is a very rich, layered, textured, and specific film that shows the every day reality of two boys, best of friends and almost inseparable, living in a working class British neighborhood. With each decision they make, we get an idea about what kind of adult they might become. It is likely they will not do anything extraordinary.

“The Selfish Giant,” written and directed by Clio Barnard, unfolds like a Ken Loach picture. It does not have a typical arc commonly found in Hollywood mainstream movies, but it is teeming with precise details about a specific group of people living a specific way of life. And that makes the work thoroughly fascinating.

Notice that the use of bright, bold, warm colors are minimized. Just about every object looks gray, cold, and even the colors appear as though vivacity had been sucked away from them. Observe the types of clothing the children wear. They appear secondhand, dirty, rife with holes, very often not ironed. Even the food they consume lack nutritious spark, often from a can or packed with empty sugar. Even the children know they are poor because they are teased by their peers at school or random passersby outside their homes.

The film’s memorable images involve hands. It is, after all, about two kids, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who decide to collect random metal scraps and transport the items to the local scrapyard, managed by a man named Kitten (Sean Gilder). Arbor and Swifty hope to make extra cash and help their mothers financially. The two boys have vastly different personalities and temperaments but they get along somehow. The picture is most fascinating when that equilibrium and feeling of safety are disturbed.

Chapman and Thomas are excellent finds because they come across natural in the roles. They are never required to look movie-cute or film-friendly so that viewers will love them and therefore relate to their plight through such avenues. Rather, they are relatable because they are required to respond to challenging situations in very real and convincing ways. Notice the contrasting dynamics between when it is the two of them versus another party and when the boys themselves clash. There is kinship in their close friendship.

The picture also works as a social critique without necessarily placing blame. For instance, most obvious is in the way it touches upon the question of whether public schools at times give up too easily on wayward children. But look a little closer and notice that parents are rarely around. And when confronted by unacceptable behavior, parents are unequipped to handle the situation. Either that or it appears as though they’ve given up a long time ago.

“The Selfish Giant” is spearheaded by smart writing and confident direction. There is no sentimentalism, only a humanist approach to a very difficult subject. It offers one of the most moving and honest endings I have seen in a long time.

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