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Coming of Age on the Scrap Heap

The Selfish Giant (2013)

Agatha A. Nitecka/57th BFI London Film Festival

"The Selfish Giant" claims to be inspired by an Oscar Wilde short story, but only the title appears to be. Arbor (Conner Chapman) is 12 and almost out of control. He lives with his overwhelmed mother (Rebecca Manley) and a drug-dealing older brother (Elliott Tittensor) who cannot be stopped from selling his A.D.H.D. medication. They sleep on the living room sofas, but their house is much nicer than that of Arbor’s best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), whose parents are settled Travelers (i.e. Gypsies) with no money and far too many children. Swifty is good with horses, which brings the boys to the attention of Kitten (Sean Gilder, well known from the British version of "Shameless"), a scrap dealer who also organizes illegal horse-and-trap races and the significant bets which are placed on them. Both Arbor’s and Swifty’s mothers are desperate for money, and both boys feel that they are useless in school. One thing pretty much leads to another.

This is director Clio Barnard’s second movie; and she has a cool, confident style. Her first was the well-reviewed "The Arbor" (obviously the inspiration for the unlikely name of the lead character), which told the story of Andrea Dunbar, the playwright who, as a teenager from a project in Bradford, scored an international success with her play "Rita, Sue and Bob Too!"

The heavy-handed symbolism with the horses is a bit much, as it was in Andrea Arnold’s "Fish Tank"; but otherwise the movie is the profoundly affecting story about Arbor learning about love and respect in the hardest way possible. He thinks he is all grown up and doesn’t anything else from anybody. So this means school is pointless; and he needs to start making money to help his mom and be independent. But Arbor soon learns his youth and small size will not protect him, especially when he is such a colossal pain in the butt. Swifty, on the other hand, is much easier to be around, as he is gentle and more interested in getting along. He’s also very smart, but has been told all his life he’s stupid and can’t figure out how to work around it.

There are no girls in this world. The few women — almost all mothers — have few resources, not much imagination and more kids than they can really cope with. But it’s the men who are the focus. Arbor’s dad is never even mentioned; his older brother has a different one. Swifty’s dad is a local joke and resented by his children. Kitten and the other men Arbor deals with are quietly menacing and confident, quick to anger and quick to snuff out any threats to their livelihoods. You can see how they have had to adapt to a world where there are much fewer opportunities for men who think they are only good with their hands.

The film is set mostly outdoors in the cold towns of Yorkshire, and the weather is a key element to the setting. Arbor is never really warm, whether he’s climbing a lamppost outside Swifty’s house or riding his borrowed junk cart through the ugly, cold streets. Ms. Barnard’s work in this film has been heavily influenced by Ms. Arnold’s, in the use of amateur and professional actors, the working-class settings and teenage protagonists. But whereas Ms. Arnold’s last two movies are about sexual awakenings, Ms. Barnard’s movie is about young men realizing the bleakness of the choices before them. There’s a lot for Arbor and Swifty to be angry and depressed about: They want so badly to be taken seriously, grown up and able to look after their mothers. But Arbor especially hasn’t figured out how to handle his rage and disappointment; and it’s easy to see why so many of the adults around him throw up their hands at him.

This is an excellent movie for boys in their early teenage years. However, the swearing from kids and adults alike is nonstop, inventive and extremely filthy. In the Britain it’s rated as suitable for everyone over the age of 15, which seems about right. But if you know any teenage boys with anger issues or a tendency to get into trouble, this movie definitely speaks their language.


Opens on Oct. 25 in Britain and on Dec. 20 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Clio Barnard, inspired by the short story by Oscar Wilde; director of photography, Mike Eley; edited by Nick Fenton; music by Harry Escott; production design by Helen Scott; costumes by Matthew Price; produced by Tracy O’Riordan; released by Artificial Eye (Britain) and Sundance Selects (United States). Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Conner Chapman (Arbor), Shaun Thomas (Swifty), Sean Gilder (Kitten), Elliott Tittensor (Martin), Rebecca Manley (Shelly), Lorraine Ashbourne (Mary), Steve Evets (“Price Drop” Swift) and Siobhan Finneran (Mrs. Swift).


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