The Selfish Giant
Runs Fri., Jan. 17–Thurs., Jan. 23 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 91 minutes.
The British underclass has been so extensively and thoughtfully explored by filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh that even a socially concerned viewer could be forgiven for feeling a little exhausted by the subject. But maybe we just needed a fresh voice.
And now we have one. Clio Barnard’s first feature, The Arbor (2010), was an experimental documentary about working-class English writer Andrea Dunbar. While shooting in Dunbar’s grim West Yorkshire hometown of Bradford, she became fascinated by the local adolescent boys who worked at “scrapping,” gathering and collecting scrap metal—sometimes legally, sometimes not. Such lads are the focus of The Selfish Giant, a drama that takes its title (if not actual story material) from an Oscar Wilde story. The two boys we follow are on their own all day, having been suspended at school for bad behavior. Arbor (Connor Chapman) can be hyperactive and destructive when he’s not on his medication; scrapping gives him a focus for his demon-like energy. His slow, docile buddy Swifty (Shaun Thomas) tags along and keeps Arbor settled down. Swifty has a similarly empathetic bond with animals, which leads the scrap-dealer (Sean Gilder) to see him as a driver for cart-racing his horse in local road races. Without money, Arbor and Swifty are without worth, so they’ll do anything to make some.
Nobody speaks the King’s English here—the subtitles are entirely necessary. Whether she’s honoring those thick accents, finding the proper pitch for the boys’ tussling friendship, or pausing for eerie shots of the town’s nuclear towers shrouded in fog, Barnard rarely sets a foot wrong. The outcome of the story is not difficult to predict, but Barnard is more interested in place and character than in surprising plot twists. There will be no miracles in store, as both boys—wonderfully acted by newcomers—are true to who they are: Arbor will find a way to overreach and screw up what they’ve got going, and Swifty will be too steadfastly loyal.
The adults are also captured with precision. We can’t know much about how they arrived at their sad places, but we can read the cycles of economic worry and deprivation in their faces. (Swifty’s mum is played by Siobhan Finneran, star of the 1987 cult film Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, penned by Andrea Dunbar.) There is almost no overt commentary in The Selfish Giant about, say, current British austerity policies or social inequality, because Barnard understands that capturing this milieu is its own indictment. The saddest indictment imaginable.