Great social-realist cinema has to do a lot more than just throw in the kitchen sink. Following her 2010 docu-drama breakout The Arbor , Clio Barnard’s first fiction feature is just about as good as it gets.
A beautiful, heartfelt, devastating fable about Broken Britain, The Selfish Giant was a rightful award-winner at Cannes, but the real prize is the film itself: signalling the arrival of a host of home-grown talent, confronting sticky issues without fear, and already looking cosily at home in the pantheon of modern Brit-classics.
At the thumping heart of the film is 13-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman), a scrappy, hyperactive kid from the sink estates of Bradford who rails against his abusive family, his ignorant teachers and the doctors who tell him to keep taking his meds. The only good thing in his life is best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), a gentle giant without the smarts to rail at anything at all.
When they get expelled for standing up for each other, the boys try to earn some fast cash, stumbling into the scrap-metal business after they nick a length of copper cable from the railway line.
Swapping their dingy interiors for mist-shrouded West Yorkshire fields, the pair set off with a horse and cart to make their fortune against a dusky horizon of smoke stacks and electrical pylons. Flecks of magic realism glimmer in the twilight, hinting at the story’s loose roots in the Oscar Wilde fairytale that lends the film its name.
Cracks start to appear when dodgy dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder) gets the kids to do his dangerous dirty work, but the story is tightly bound together by the pair’s unshakable friendship – and more importantly, by the youngsters playing them.
Both unprofessional actors (and both hailing from the same estate as their characters), Chapman and Thomas gift The Selfish Giant with urgent, lively, wholly natural performances, easily outshining their adult co-stars.
Obvious comparisons to Ken Loach’s Kes bound in Arbor’s emotional journey, but this is a much tougher tale; Bernard cutting deeper and hitting harder. Which isn’t to say she holds back on the tears in the wrenching finale either.
Following a run of shorts and experimental docs, Barnard fills her narrative debut with so much wholehearted passion for her characters, it’s all you can do not to laugh, scream and cry right along with them.