The Selfish Giant really blew me away at the London Film Festival, not only that, I did proper sobs. It was my weepiest film of the festival by quite a long way. And I saw Like Father, Like Son.
Clio Barnard’s follow up to The Arbor has a more naturalistic format, but is just as brave. It feels like the sort of film that could only have been made in a country laid low by austerity and recession, where the government seem to be constantly picking at the sores of those with the least, driving them into desperate ways to keep food on the table. It feels like a heartfelt yowl of pain: this is what we’ve become, take a look. It’s not pretty.
Barnard spoke about the film after the screening and said how although it had begun life as something based more closely on Oscar Wilde’s story, it grew into something quite different, but she thought the spirit of the original tale, about a man who wouldn’t share his garden with local children, was still there. (That original story, by the way, also makes me cry – for reference, see this original 70s animation. Then weep.) For all this, and although Barnard’s tale of two teenage boys is certainly gritty, it’s also funny and incredibly moving and driven by two outstanding lead performances.
Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are best friends. Their families don’t really live on the breadline, they’re underneath it scratching for crumbs and the boys shoulder the responsibility to try and make things better. Neither of them are stupid, but both are struggling at school – Arbor because he’s a bit ADHD and out of control, Swifty because he’s been relentlessly bullied. So when they find themselves excluded and a miraculous money-making opportunity comes their way, they don’t waste any time worrying about the dangers involved. Their involvement with local scrap dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder, not particularly kittenish) gives Arbor a way to make the money his family are desperate for while allowing Swifty to spend time with the horses he loves. He’s the sort of role model they’re both looking for in different ways.
It’s almost like watching a documentary, with performances so realistic that your heart is broken almost before you realise where the story is heading. Barnard directs with an undercurrent of fury and a love for her characters that shines, even in the grimmest surroundings – The Selfish Giant is never anything less than gripping.
It’ll break your heart, make you laugh and fill you with rage: easily one of the best British films of our times.