We open on a scene of peace and placidity – a foggy field populated by gently grazing horses, silent and soothing. And yet, within mere moments of such ease, Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” makes it known that any kind of grace at the heart of the film is hard-won, battered, and fleeting. The horses spell doom. The entire landscape does, really, as that first charming scene crumbles until we’re trapped with a breathless, huffing child wedged under a bed, hollering at things we can’t see and don’t want to.
In short – some films open with horses that signal happiness and hope and plenty of giddy galloping, and some films open with horses that signal that someone is going to get goddamn trampled or break a leg and get shot in the head or something equally as disturbing, and soon. No one gets literally tramped in “The Selfish Giant” (we wouldn’t spoil such a thing here), but plenty of people are metaphorically run over in the film, so frequently and so fully that even its audience is likely to stumble out of the theater as if they’ve been struck.
Barnard’s latest centers on a pair of scrappy thirteen-year-olds – the huffing Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his caring best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) – who embark on a well-meaning childhood adventure that has lasting and terrible consequences. The duo doesn’t quite fit in either at home (Arbor’s ailments leave him screaming and crying and combative, at least when he forgets his medication, and Swifty’s stuffed household is continually at the mercy of the repo man) or at school, where they’ve just been “excluded” (Arbor permanently, Swifty temporarily). Despite parents who appear to care about them, the pair is all but lost, and when they decide to put their newly found free time to work, no one attempts to stop them.
Arbor and Swifty are resourceful blokes, and a recent night out has yielded both an unexpected bounty for them (they stole a length of copper cable and sold it for a pretty penny) and a new neighborhood hero in the form of Kitten (Sean Gilder), the scrap yard owner who took their goods off their hands. Soon the pair decides to spend their days poking around for metal scrap and selling it to Kitten. They don’t need school! They don’t need parents! They just need this pony to pull a cart for them while they pillage their neighborhood! None of this can possibly end well.
Barnard appears to be interested (even if unconsciously) in imitating and idolizing the work of another creator from across the pond – “The Selfish Giant” smacks of Ken Loach’s particular brand of social realism, and if Barnard is trying to stake her claim as his successor, she’s more than worthy of taking up such a mantle.
Barnard has already proven herself adept at crafting inventive adaptations, as her 2010 documentary “The Arbor” mixed more traditional means of documentary filmmaking with bold, nearly interactive performances in strange places. Arriving around the same time as Bart Layton’s similarly bold “The Imposter,” the pair of productions seemed to signal the rise of a new kind of documentary, and it is somewhat disheartening that Barnard’s follow-up doesn’t have the same charm, wit, and power as her previous film. Barnard is unquestionably an assured director, and even the similarities to the work of Loach don’t necessarily detract from her originality. Barnard knows how to make material feel original, but that doesn’t mean such work can stand on its own.
The film bears little resemblance to the source material Barnard drew from, Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name; in fact, if “The Selfish Giant” was called something else entirely, like “Sad Times in the Scrap Yard” or “Electric Youth” or “Look, Here’s a Horse,” few people would draw comparisons between the two. Wilde’s short story is undeniably upbeat compared to the wrenching hopelessness of Barnard’s film, and even its biggest differences illuminate the sort of story the filmmaker wants to tell – for one, Wilde’s story is set in a garden, while Barnard’s film mainly takes place in a filthy scrap yard. The hopelessness that permeates the entire production is indeed hard to shake and omnipresent. Barnard doesn’t offer cheap possibilities or the promise that there might be something more for our characters – instead, she routinely and regularly assures us that things are the way they are (bad) and they’re going to stay that way (forever).
It is an emotionally punishing experience, and even small moments of happiness and kindness are tainted by the steady realization that they don’t mean a damn thing. Swifty’s “softness” becomes the sole emotional refuge of the film, and even that comes tinged with an unshakeable sense that it will only lead to something bad.
While the troubled Arbor is the center of the film (and young Chapman plays him with well-honed grit and range), the heart of the film is actually Thomas’ haunting turn as the loyal Swifty, especially as it reflects in his friendship with Arbor. Swifty is the only person Arbor is truly bonded to, so when he starts spending more time with Kitten, it’s a twofold threat to the youngster: he might lose his best friend and a man he seems intent on setting up as a father figure. Barnard doesn’t necessarily go with the most obvious tragedies in the film, and she even serves up a bit of misdirection here and there, but the end result of “The Selfish Giant” is still wholly expected, horrific, and the kind of good movie you’ll want to forget as soon as possible.
SCORE: 7.9 / 10
"The Selfish Giant" is now in theaters and available to rent on iTunes.