The Selfish Giant
Directed by Clio Barnard
We’re first introduced to 13-year-old Arbor Fenton (Conner Chapman) as he angrily pounds the wooden slats underneath the frame of his bed—it’s unclear what’s set him off, only that he has a live-wire temper, and doesn’t hesitate to let those fists fly. In short order, best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) has talked him down, and the two take a midnight horseback ride down to the train tracks, where they swipe a coil of metal cable to scrap for cash. So director Barnard (oddly, the protagonist Arbor shares a name with the director’s previous film, a tough 2010 documentary with an unusual formal device: actors lip-synching over interview audio) sets up her intriguing second feature, an atmospheric spin on the British social-realist picture, edged with a just a hint of grimy enchantment.
Inspired by an Oscar Wilde fable for children, from which the film also draws its title, The Selfish Giant takes place in the ramshackle environs of Bradford (also the housing-estate stomping ground of The Arbor), a landscape littered with crumbling homes and overgrown lawns that might be scavenged for salable junk; in back of the scrapyard, pasture gives way to a power plant. Poverty and family discord (not to mention a knee-jerk defiance of authority) have cast Arbor and Swifty out into this terrain to fend for themselves, clinging tightly to each other as they playact their idea of adult self-reliance. Soon, Arbor and Swifty, excluded from school, find themselves working for junkyard boss Kitten (Sean Gilder) full-time—with Swifty drafted to tend to Kitten’s prize horse (rented out to collectors to haul carts of reclaimed metal, and run in races on the side), while Arbor, feeling left out, and thus increasingly reckless, entertains the idea of stripping the cables from the nearby power lines. The tactility of the hovering handheld photography (by DP Mike Eley) creates a sort of electricity of its own, heightening the film’s sensitivity to the hardships of the boys, blustery kids affectingly played by non-pros Chapman and Thomas. The Selfish Giant might be built like a bedtime story, but it certainly pulls no punches in ushering forth its scalding kitchen-sink shouting match.
Opens December 20