Denizens of Northern England’s depressed Bradford estates and children of wildly dysfunctional families—one broken and bereft of patriarch, the other teeming and tyrannized by a drunken dad who pawns the family sofa to pay the light bill—Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) may be victims of a lopsided and neglectful social disorder, but any of us, however better off, should be so lucky as to have friends as loyal and loving at such a tender age. From its opening images of horses under stars, reactors looming in the mist and seemingly endless rows of low-income housing, The Selfish Giant plants us firmly in its milieu—yet it emphasizes that milieu’s battered poetry as much as its struggle and misery.
Arbor and Swifty—what brilliant names—sprout from this soil, the former diminutive and wiry, sporting a goofy haircut, garbed in dirty and torn clothing, compulsively kicking and screaming much of the time, the latter taller and portly, well-groomed and habitually polite, inclined to gentler gestures and a natural with animals, horses most especially. Early in the film the pair get expelled from school for fighting and cheerfully assume their new vocation as scrap men, collecting odds and ends and selling them to the ironically named Kitten (Sean Gilder), a sort of fury-prone and foul-mouthed Fagan figure who runs a vast scrap yard and participates in the local illegal horse-and-harness races. It’s Kitten who turns his junior gleaners on to copper wire, which fetches a mint by their standards, but which must be swiped from rail yards and utility trucks, and, most precariously, powers lines and underground cables. All of which promises even more trouble than the boys are already in. And while Arbor and Swifty’s fiercely loyal friendship is the silver lining in The Selfish Giant’s ever-present dark clouds and roiling fog, Kitten’s favoritism toward Swifty, whose talent with horses he hopes to exploit for his racing hobby, threatens to cause a rift which the volatile and under-medicated Arbor is all too ready to widen.
This second feature from conceptual artist-turned-filmmaker Clio Barnard, whose truly remarkable debut, The Arbor (2010), was also set in the mean suburban streets of Bradford, is loosely based on the Oscar Wilde fairytale of the same name, yet it feels like lived experience. (In fact, the characters of Arbor and Swifty were drawn from a couple of neighbourhood boys hanging around during production on The Arbor.) The Selfish Giant perfectly balances qualities rarely combined to such effect in British social realism: it is compassionate without ever resorting to the sentimental; gritty while exuding craft and roughhewn beauty. All of which, along with the film’s sympathies and Swifty’s affinity for animals, bring to mind Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). Which should in no way prompt one to regard The Selfish Giant as any kind of throwback. It is grounded in timeless themes and in some ways feels drawn from myth, but this is very much a film of the here and now. And Barnard, inventive and intelligent yet full of heart, is quite obviously an artist with a bright future.