The Selfish Giant
A moving tale of friendship and poverty Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is a beautifully observed gem of a film that trades in honesty and minimises unnecessary sentimentality. Arbor (oddly, also the name of Barnard’s first feature-documentary The Arbor that played NZIFF 2010) and Swifty are schoolmates and friends in a down and out area of Bradford (West Yorkshire) in England’s North. Right from the get go we are shown that this pair aren’t the easiest young lads to live/get along with–Arbor has severe ADHD or Tourette’s and is on and off his medication and Swifty is a “dirty Pikey” from a very poor and overpopulated family–but they find non-judgemental ease and understanding in each other.
Barnard maps out a slice-of-life narrative with the boys’ problems at school and their desire to grift for some money. Their semi-illicit adventuring throws them into some overly adult situations at which point some more structured dramatics take over. The director wisely eschews demonising the adults in this story, managing to maintain an empathic touch with almost all characters: the wayward boys, their harassed parents, even the school staff and police officers who make smaller appearances. For example: evincing a strong directorial hand and competent grasp of narrative and tone Barnard (and crew) manage to capture the discomforting drama of a police home visit–negatively received by a weary mother and her cynical son–enabling the audience to feel that they can relate to all participants present whilst simultaneously bringing to the fore the broader circumstances that necessitated the meeting.
Visually the film chops and changes between Dardennian handheld follow shots and a more locked off style for land/city-scapes. This latter style is employed to great effect, aestheticizing the Northern setting and keeping the film from sinking into an excessively bleak tone which, untempered, the narrative could drive it to. Despite a few visual stumbles along the way–shots that perhaps hold too long, or lack coherence in the edit–there is also some real artistry on display in this picture.
The tone, characterisation, and determined Englishness of the film has some (positive) resonance with the work of other exemplary British filmmakers Shane Meadows (in particular A Room For Romeo Brass and Somers Town) and Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights both of whom are also NZIFF alumni. To my mind, this (i think unallied) generation of British filmmakers are producing some of the most compelling indigenous/localised cinema coming out of the UK, and the world, today. Who says ‘kitchen sink’ drama has to be boring? Films like The Selfish Giant prove that small stories well told can achieve greater impact and resonance than almost any epic tale.
Rating: R13 Offensive language.