We meet Arbor, the troubled young protagonist of Clio Barnard’s second feature “The Selfish Giant" in claustrophobic close-up as he hammers his fists in incoherent rage against the underside of the bed beneath which, we gather, he tends to retreat in times of stress. The violence subsides suddenly though, as he is coaxed out of his hiding place and out of his fit of anger, by big, soft Swifty, his best (only) friend, with whom Arbor shares a certain marginalization -- Arbor is being medicated for an unspecified antisocial disorder; Swifty is bullied and taunted for his traveller background. Marking the shift from verbal and physical violence and harshness, to a sort of grounded lyricism (a shift the film makes successfully time and again), this squally opening scene ends with a calm detail of the boys’ clasped hands, which we will return to later in different and wrenchingly tragic circumstances. It’s a gripping beginning to this passionately felt and astonishingly acted film, which shares a lot of DNA with the modern British social realist movies of Barnard’s contemporaries Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay. Like those directors, Barnard has an utterly authentic eye for the specificity of the breadline situation of Swifty’s and Arbor’s families, but her similar knack for pulling a weird beauty out of the squalor elevates the film from potential grimness onto the plane of moving human portrait.
If anything, Barnard goes further in establishing a kind of furious compassion for her characters, especially for Arbor, who is embodied brilliantly by non-professional young actor Conor Chapman, in a performance that reminded us of the similarly unselfconscious and un-self-pitying turn given by Thomas Turgoose in Shane Meadows’ “This is England.” And fellow first-timer Shawn Thomas brings heart and realism to Arbor’s quieter, maybe slower and more watchful foil Swifty, vital because it’s largely interplay between the two young actors that gives the film its considerable power. With a plot and setting that could easily lend itself to straight-up miserabilism, Barnard needs the moments of humor and tenderness that spring up so naturally between the two to move the film out of that register and into more resonant and emotive territory.
When a misguided attempt to defend Swifty from schoolyard bullies results in expulsion (“exclusion”) for Arbor and suspension for Swifty, the two boys gravitate toward the junkyard run by the unscrupulous Kitten, whose sideline in horsedrawn buggy racing piques the horse-mad Swifty’s interest, while Arbor sees the potential for making money by stealing and selling scrap metal. From there the story plays out into unexpected but never contrived directions, building to a heartbreaking climax that is all the more devastating for allowing a note of redemption and hope to creep in at the end.
The film’s title is derived from the Oscar Wilde story of the same name, on which it was apparently loosely based. But where Wilde’s story is overtly Christian, the mythic resonances of Barnard’s story feel more ancient: as deprived and impoverished as their lives might be initially, the friendship between the boys is a kind of prelapsarian haven for them both. So to us the story played more as a fall from grace, with Kitten as the serpent who introduces jealousy and greed into their previously harmonious friendship. If anything, the title is kind of a bum steer, forcing a Wildean connection that the film neither earns nor needs, and that can at worst be a little distracting if you start trying to work out who equates to whom.
In fact, the film works exceptionally well on its own terms, and has no real need of any mythic overlay, especially with a social environment as sharply drawn as this. Arbor’s father is absent; Swifty’s is negligent at best and so both boys are drawn to their mothers. Between the two mothers too, there exists an interesting relationship of mutual sympathy. Arbor’s mother clearly recognizes the good that Swifty’s friendship does her uncontrollable and sometimes violent child, and with Swifty’s large family in apparently even direr financial straits than hers, it seems a tacit arrangement has sprung up between the women that Swifty will be as much in her house as his own. Families here are complex, porous entities, the bonds of trust and love and protectiveness forming and dissolving and reforming within them and between them constantly, like in life.
Barnard’s first feature “The Arbor” (it appears to be a word she likes) was a film we admired greatly, but it was a formally experimental loose biography that incorporated documentary elements, so we can’t say that we were expecting anything like “The Selfish Giant” for her follow-up. Retrospectively we could suggest that her storytelling chops were already on display in that former film, as was her knack for making us bawl, but nonetheless the powerful way she approached a more traditional narrative and the delicately drawn fictional character studies she delivers here were a surprise to us. But as directorially impressive as it might be (and it fully deserved its spot in the Director's Fortnight at Cannes) and as masterfully as she knits a certain lyricism deep into the fabric of the film's realism, perhaps the highest compliment that we can pay Barnard is that this is wholly Arbor’s film. He’s an unforgettable character who goes on a revelatory journey from innocence mixed with ignorance mixed with arrogance through the most painful coming of age imaginable, to a new idea of life and his place in the world. He pays a terrible cost for the wisdom he gains, but the penance he chooses for himself is instinctively poetic, devastatingly human and strangely honorable, and so “The Selfish Giant” preaches compassion by showing us in its very closing moments, the fathomless goodness that can lie beneath even the spittingest, snarlingest exterior. [B+]