Film Review: The Selfish Giant

Enigmatically titled but thrillingly direct, heart-shattering portrait of two boys' hardscrabble lives earns an easy comparison with some of the greatest Italian neo-realist works about kids in perilous poverty.

The toughest juvenile denizens of America's grittiest ghettos would seem to have nothing on their counterparts in Northern England. Disaffected, relentlessly profane, and abusive and scornful of all authority, these Yorkshire kids are as badass as can be to each other, parents and teachers, and of all of them, no one is more badass than feisty little Arbor (Conner Chapman). This mouthy brat is an obscenity-spouting equal-opportunity offender to everyone around him, save Swifty (Shaun Thomas), his one milder, horse-loving friend.

The two of them get thrown out of school for fighting and, none too concerned, decide to make money for themselves and their hard-pressed families by finding and selling scrap iron to Kitten (Sean Gilder), a tough old exploiter and proprietor of a profitable junkyard. Kitten also has a sideline in horse racing, which captivates the gentle giant Swifty. A rift grows between the boys when Kitten selects Swifty to be his new jockey, while the manic Arbor, ever avid for more cash, takes to stealing valuable cable and copper wire to sell, a choice with tragic results.

With The Selfish Giant, writer-director Clio Barnard has made an arrestingly raw study of how a blighted economy affects young, disaffected souls. Her brusquely direct approach proves rewarding with what is essentially familiar material in a fresh, if drab, setting of the (barely) working-class contemporary U.K. It's marked by eternally grey skies and industrial ugliness which have their own singular appeal, with Mike Eley's striking cinematography finding odd moments of eerie beauty in shots of huge, silo-like concrete generators and foggy landscapes softened by the presence of silhouetted, grazing horses. The nonstop aggression and rudeness of its denizens lend a mordantly authentic black-comedy flavor, for how else can anyone really behave in this modern-Dickensian midst of dire financial duress, with drugged-out kids dangerously owing money and a family's very settee being repossessed out from under them? As thoroughly obnoxious as Arbor is, his unslakable ingenuity and wrongheaded but positively Brechtian survivalist's determination win you over, especially as terrifically portrayed by Chapman, who has the delicate features of a young angel masking the devilishness within.

Chapman's frenetic performance and the sweeter one of the plumper, cherub-faced Thomas rank among the great screen acting by children, and evoke the heartbreaking ragamuffins of such similarly themed neo-realist classics as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and, especially, Shoeshine.  Barnard's empathy with these boys is complete and the utter naturalism she has coaxed from them is near-miraculous, with their easy intimacy creating a lovely, if eternally beset, little fun world all their own. There's a marvelous, magical moment when Swifty, momentarily cowed into good behavior, is sitting in school detention when up comes his beloved Arbor, driving a horse-drawn equipage into the school to sweep him relievedly away.

The horserace scene, with the town's drunkenly screaming louts closely following the alarmed beasts, is electrifying, and so illustrative of what goes down for kicks in this bereft little universe. The climactic, doomed turn of events is indeed devastating—with perhaps the malevolent, Fagin-like Kitten's moral capitulation being a tad unconvincing—but Barnard extracts genuine pathos from the boys' distraught mothers (Rebecca Manley and Siobhan Finneran, both excellent, if underused), as well as a truly haunting, yearning final moment between the lads.