The Selfish Giant, inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name, is a small gem of a film. Written and directed by Clio Barnard, it tells the story of two teenage boys and their attempts to make a better life for themselves by collecting and selling scrap metal. With beautiful cinematography, unaffected performances and consummate direction, it is a compelling portrait of people struggling with economic hardship, whilst also featuring at its core a tragic story about two teenage outsiders.
Living in Bradford, in northern England, is Arbor (Conner Chapman), a teenage boy who has hyperactivity disorder and is often prone to making rash, impulsive outbursts and choices. His best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) has a milder demeanour, and he acts as a calming presence for Arbor. Coming from families who are struggling economically, they are both ostracized at school, and after a bullying incident they are both suspended for an extended period of time. They soon realise that selling scrap metal, obtained from dangerous locations such as railway tracks and power stations, to their abrasive local dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder) is potentially lucrative. Kitten also owns horses, and Swifty’s natural affinity with them encourages Kitten to favour him, making Arbor envious. Subsequently, Arbor’s jealousy sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to a tragic, heartbreaking final outcome.
The performances are exceptional across the board. Gilder’s blatant, brazen anger is always tempered by his palpable frustration at his lot, of the years of bitterness that have been accumulating. Thomas is endearing as the larger but gentler of the two boys, and his Swifty is thoughtful and compassionate, perhaps to a fault. Arguably though, it is Chapman who anchors the film with his unaffected central performance, demonstrating his commitment to playing an exasperating, even at times frustrating, character who ultimately inspires our understanding and sympathy. The cinematography too is stunning, a combination of dark, bleak landscapes rendered dreamy and almost meditative with fog and lingering camera gazes.
But ultimately, it is Barnard’s direction and vision that is essential to the film’s success. She excels at balancing several different moods throughout the film, from the chaos of the boys’ family lives to the more tender moments and gestures shared between various characters. Most importantly, her unfussy, restrained approach heightens the emotional intensity of the film’s final scenes – the stillness of the camera, along with the overwhelming silence that pervades and permeates, complement each other to amplify their devastating emotional impact. Ultimately, The Selfish Giant is a highly accomplished film, and one that deserves to be seen.
The Selfish Giant is in Australian cinemas from July 31 through Rialto.