The Selfish Giant is the second feature from British director Clio Barnard, shifting from actors lip-synching testimonies about local playwright Andrea Dunbar in her exceptional debut documentary The Arbor (2010) and into a fictional gear that follows two teenage boys caught up in copper theft following their suspension from school. The film, inspired and grounded by Oscar Wilde’s titular short fable, follows familiar British cinematic tradition, standing beside the likes of Kes (1969) and Fish Tank (2009), by presenting an immediate perspective of deprivation through the eyes of a young person; a format that has since become unfashionable in both television drama and theatre production. Yet, it is the with brutal force-of-nature performance from the two local untrained actors, Chapman and Thomas, which pushes The Selfish Giant as my personal Best Film of 2013.
Excluded from a school and outsiders of their own community, thirteen-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) and close friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) meet Barnard’s ‘giant’, Kitten (Sean Gilder), an exploitative and violent scrap dealer, whose yard embodies a post-industrial society dismantled to be recycled, turned over and stolen, where nothing is new yet everything has potential worth. However, with a natural directional push, tensions begin to rise when Kitten favours Swifty, leaving Arbor to reciprocate Kitten’s own behaviour leading us towards the tragic final act that will leave an impression on the audience for days to follow. Arbor represents the extent of a youthful soul enduring societal pressures with particular athleticism and responsibility, comparable to Mia’s journey in Andra Arnold’s Fish Tank. As Mia is forced to reconcile with an aggressive adult life whilst following her youthful desires, Arbor instructs an officer to remove his shoes in light-humoured respect before being questioned for potential criminal involvement whilst comforting his own distracted mother. This strength and determination alongside repeated eerie scenes of horses on unkempt vistas and metal structures presents a society worn and burdened with fatigue.
The Selfish Giant is a masterpiece for independent British filmmaking, an eye-opener, and will affect audiences in many different ways. Deviating from the norm, grant me this personal summary as an outsider in Bradford from the south of England. Barnard and her creative team of actors and technicians have captured this community beautifully and with gentle aspiration, The Selfish Giant is precisely the window into a world that I have witnessed that so many in Britain overlook and yet is everyday life for many others. My experience was at Bradford’s own National Media Museum, disappointingly the only cinema in the film’s setting to present it, with someone who was born and raised in that community, someone who found it difficult to watch at times for its realism and intent. Watched in companion with The Arbor, which I recommend viewing afterwards, it was difficult to return to my more affluent southern home town days later without thinking how much of life is taken for granted there. An emotional film that deserved the standing ovation it received at the Cannes Film Festival left me silenced during the credits. This is the level of local talent and raw filmmaking Britain should be celebrating and not just the trend of co-production treaties being signed internationally. Instead of rating this film, I just implore you to watch it and discuss.