Review: ‘The Selfish Giant’ 9.28.14


I have to admit I’m a sucker for European dramas that focus on poor, working class youth. I’ve always felt like they’re so much better made than their American counterparts. Particularly films that come out of Britain. Ones like Samantha Morton’s “The Unloved” (2009), the wonderfully sublime 2009 film by Andrea Arnold – “Fish Tank” (still Michael Fassbender’s best performance to date if you ask me), and Peter Mullan’s 2010’s “NEDS” (Non Educated Deliquents). These are all bleak and gritty social dramas about adolescents on the fringes of society. Societies that are in decay. And ones that condition the children they bring up in them to become inadvertent by-products of the harsh environments in which they live in. This was another one that earned a slot at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and won the Label Europa Cinema award. An award I can’t say I’m all too familiar with. But as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, just the mere fact that a film was selected at Cannes, often times alone is reason enough for me to see it. I chose this film solely based on that notion and nothing to do with the director. Who, as I came to find out, goes by the name of Clio Barnard. Barnard has made quite a name for himself in the UK because of his award winning documentary that came out a few years back called “The Arbor” (2010). Which admittedly I haven’t seen.

The story revolves around two young boys named Arbor and Fenton (“Swifty”). Both live in very unstable households, especially Swifty, who lives in one of those households where more screaming is done than actual talking, along with there being one too many family members to share the space they inhabit. He’s also prone to temper tantrums and as a result of it is on medication. Both of his brothers are high school drop outs; one a drug addict, and by the way Swifty acts in school, he’s next in line. The focus then turns to that of Arbor, who’s personal and family life is equally as turmultuous. The two of them spend their spare time outside of their desparate school and home lives hanging out at the local “scrapping” yard where they trade in used scraps of metal and cable wire in exchange for money. This same scrap yard has its own culture that vulnerable young kids like Arbor and Swifty are drawn to. It’s an alpa male dominant one, with everyone trying to be “harder” than the next person. This at first seems alluring to the boys and they do what they have to do to fit in. The scrap yard’s perveyor, played by a ruthless and menacing character named Kitten that reminded me of somebody very similar to Peter Mullan’s in one of my favorite films of the past few years – “Tyrannosaur” (2010). Arbor takes a liking to Kitten in all of his alpa male dominance but it’s clear Kitten likes Swifty more, which is the start of the disintegration of the relationship of the two boys, and what the last third of the film really starts to explore.

I thought the film did a great job at depicting the working/blue collar class society. A society that’s decaying along with its people. People that are stricken with extreme poverty and have to do by whatever means necessary to survive. The scenes of watching the boys and their families are incredibly sad but immensely powerful. I also felt like it captured the mean-spiritedness and teenage angst of the poor youth culture rather well. Barnard also shoots the desolute, rural countryside; where it always happens to be both rainy and foggy beautifully. He has a certain knack for setting up establishing shots that are filled with some very striking imagery. The second high point for me was the scrap yard owner, Kitten, played by a British actor whom I’m unfamilar with but who really drives the beat at the heart of the story. He is almost a patriarch of the “scrap community”; a Don-like figure of sorts. Kitten is a bad, bad man. And the actor who plays him gives a hell of a bravura performance that’s both electrifying and terrifying in equal parts. I also thought the transition towards the last half of the film really started to show a more raw, humanistic treatment of the characters. It shows a sense of underlying tenderness as human vulnerability and compassion sets in which was absent from the first half, and comes across as both authentic and poetic. My only one very minor criticism of the piece is that it’s more of an examination or critique in its observation of its characters than it is plot driven. So some people may have a hard time with the patient pace that takes. But if you can keep yourself focused, you will find a beautifully heartfelt film about the nature of the human spirit and how people persevere even amongst the harshest of conditions. This is a strong and assured work. One that I highly recommend to those with an interest in calm yet challenging material. This will make my Honorable Mentions list at year’s end. That I can almost guarantee.

Grade: B+