DIRECTED by: Clio Barnard Film Pulse Score: 8/10
Life is tough when you’re living in the impoverished part of town. What are your prospects? Looking around what does life really have to offer? If that’s what’s waiting why even bother. People make due with what they’ve got. People take advantage of other’s misfortunes. People find they are indebted and are forced to do things they otherwise would not. It’s a pretty bleak existence. Imagine having to grow up in this environment. Clio Barnard’s first feature The Selfish Giant is a haunting look at two teenage boys growing up in a world that doesn’t leave them with many prospects.
Arbor, a violent kid who often rejects his medications, and Swifty, a big mellow kid who is Arbor’s best mate, are growing up in the impoverished part of a British town. They both come from families who are struggling to make ends meet. After getting involved in a scuffle at school they are both expelled. With nothing better to do they both venture off getting into all kinds of trouble stealing things to make a quick buck. Arbor and Swifty come under the wing of an unscrupulous scrap metal collector named Kitten who begins to use them for his own greedy illegal gains.
Barnard takes a sobering look at the impact an environment can have on the children. With the lack of proper parenting children can fall under the spell of the most unsavory of “role models.” While Arbor and Swifty’s escapades can be somewhat amusing due to their brazenness it doesn’t stray into absurdity because the events depicted are quite plausible. In fact, the characters were inspired by children Barnard met while researching her documentary The Arbor. Working from her own screenplay she tells a touching story about a friendship between two unlikely friends who have each other’s back even when the world has turned its back on them.
Barnard gets remarkable performances from her two young leads Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas as Arbor and Swifty, respectively. Both of them make their acting debuts and both perform like seasoned veterans. Chapman carries the film as the always aggressive and angry Arbor. Thomas is excellent as Swifty someone who knows how to deal with his friends tantrums. They are certainly an odd couple but they are very much ying and yang. Sean Gilder is quite menacing as Kitten. Siobhan Finneran and Rebecca Manley are great as Mrs. Swift and Mrs. Fenton, respectively. They are both effective as the mothers who care deeply for their sons but know that their circumstances aren’t the best for them.
Barnard has made one of the better coming of age films in recent years. It is a solid feature film directorial debut. With striking cinematography by Mike Eley, a well written screenplay and very good performances from her actors she has put together a haunting film that will likely stay with you after you have left the theatre. Like The Kid with a Bike, it is unclear just where this will be going but it will make you laugh, make you think, surprise you, and may even make you cry.