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Review: ‘The Selfish Giant’ is a tender tragedy of friendship and desperation

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Over the past couple of decades, a rich and interesting sub-genre has come to life in British independent film. Headlined by the acclaimed films of Ken Loach (such as Kes and Sweet Sixteen), Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and even Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur to a degree, the films in this subset are bleak and grizzled looks at working class poverty and the harsh reality that comes along with it, all seen through the eyes of a child.

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The latest noteworthy addition to this group is Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, a contemporary fable about two young friends who seek fortune by getting involved with a local scrap dealer and criminal which leads to tragic consequences. The film is partly inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name.

With a near-barren industrial backdrop and an almost colorless aesthetic, the film paints a bleak and stark portrait of lower class Britain – where a convergence of environment, circumstance, and lack of proper guidance often forces children to grow up long before they should.

With dirty clothes and torn jackets, the two boys at the heart of the story have forged a unique bond. They are outsiders in every sense of the word. Neither really fits in at school and both face difficult times at home, but they understand each other and their friendship is the most important thing to them. So what happens when, like most relationships, their bond is tested?

The small, but feisty Arbor (Conner Chapman) is an impetuous hellcat on medication for behavior issues. He is difficult to deal with, but fiercely loyal to those he loves. He is crafty and resourceful, but ultimately misguided. Often the only one can keep him in check is his best friend, Swifty (Shaun Thomas). A big boy for his age, he is gentle and quiet with a caring knack for horses. Whether at home or at school, Arbor chooses to act out his frustrations as a defense, while Swifty carefully examines life with his big, thoughtful eyes and caring heart. So real and so tender, the young actors give two of the best performances by child actors this year.

To help make money for their impoverished and eternally struggling families, the two boys (aged 12 or 13) setout collecting scrap metal to bring to the local salvage yard. Kitten (Sean Gilder), the deceptively-named junkyard proprietor, is initially resistant to them working for him. But when he figures out how to exploit the naïve boys, he reluctantly welcomes them into his seedy fold.

When Kitten learns of Swifty’s ability with horses, he enlists the shy kid to compete in horse-cart street races (kind of the anti-Fast and Furious). This leaves Arbor feeling left out, which in turn, urges him to try something foolish to make up for it. It is heartbreaking to watch Arbor, so neglected and ignored in everyday life, deal with this new rejection, and as the sense of dread builds to what is unavoidably coming his way.

Writer-director Clio Barnard weaves a wonderfully simple, yet moving story of youth, friendship, and desperation. Her thoughtful, but unobtrusive camera fades into the squalor with long shots, finding the beauty in the washed out and desolate. She builds the film with an angry, impending sense of dread up to its inevitable climax and heartfelt conclusion.

* * * * ½ out of 5 stars

The Selfish Giant opens Friday, January 10 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center. It will play for two weeks at 7:30 p.m. nightly (except Monday at 5:30 p.m.).

So come out to the Zeitgeist and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South. You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.

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