The Selfish Giant (15)
Dir: Clio Barnard
With: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder
Runtime: 91 minutes
AS a modern fable set in a deprived part of Bradford, Clio Barnard's British drama might have been called The Council Estate Mouse And The Country Mouse, or The Bedroom Tax And The Bus Fare, anything to signal that audiences are about to enter a land of urban poverty and youngsters growing old before their time.
Taking its name from the children's tale by Oscar Wilde suits Barnard's beautifully drawn film far better. A wintriness could have seeped into the bones of this story about two teenagers collecting scrap to scrape a living, yet Barnard (The Arbor), with the aid of a terrific cast and a few horses, manages to make some hope spring eternal too. Prepare for grimness all ye who enter this North, but be ready for light and love and humour besides.
Arbor and Swifty (newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) are two youngsters from the same side of the tracks, the side where gangs go out at night to steal cables, strip them down to the wire, and sell the material to scrap merchants. No matter how many warnings are issued about the risks to life and limb, the business of pinching and flogging grinds on.
Come daylight the scrappers go home and youngsters such as Arbor and Swifty are meant to head to school. School, however, is not a happy place for either lad. Arbor is small, gobby, aggressive, and unable to sit still for a nanosecond. Like some Asbo Huckleberry Finn, there is no switching him off. His mate, Swifty, is Arbor's opposite: a slow, gentle lad who is, much to Arbor's dismay, the target of bullies. "You're too soft," Arbor tells his best pal. "You need to harden up."
A look at their home lives soon reveals that neither boy is exactly living an Enid Blyton childhood. Arbor's brother is a drug addict. His mother, fighting to get one son off drugs and to keep the other in school, is living on her nerve ends. In Swifty's over-crowded house dad is selling the furniture and mum is telling her son to stick in at school lest he be looking at the same kind of future.
Against this backdrop, the boys reckon that their best chance of helping their families and themselves lies in getting hold of a horse and cart and going scrapping for a local dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder). With man mountain Kitten also involved in the pony racing trade, there might even be extra work for the horse-mad Swifty.
At this point in the review, readers might have divided into two camps. In one, hands are being rubbed at the prospect of another helping of Loachian social realism of the kind pioneered in Kes and continued by the likes of Andrea Arnold in her Glasgow-set drama, Red Road. The other camp is thinking, "Oh no, not more poverty porn".
If you are in the latter camp chances are you come from Glasgow, where going to watch films about poverty and despair are something of a busman's holiday. Why pay £9 to see hardship on a cinema screen when you can witness it free in your own home city?
After all, there is something perverse about filmmakers filling their boots in the poorest parts of Britain and offering up their treasures for the entertainment and edification of better off patrons elsewhere. Destitution can be awfully cinematic, don't you know. Even bicycle thieves can be heroes.
Barnard's film is too shrewd and heartfelt to fall into the category of poverty porn. Her gaze is unflinching as she looks at the environment in which these boys are growing up. The water cooling towers and pylons that scar the area are not shot against sunsets or otherwise romanticised. They stand there, squat and stark and menacing, the hum of the pylons acting like a warning to those who would dare come near. Characters are not noble heroes, gritting their teeth through the financial pain. They are grasping and desperate, as willing to exploit children as adults.
The film is saved not just by the director's handling of the material, but by the brilliant performances she secures from her two young leads. Chapman and Thomas create their own little world within a world that we can look in on.
Their story might have the simplicity of a fable but it packs in a novel's worth of themes, from the importance of pals to the saving grace of animals, without ever seeming preachy or contrived. Barnard asks these youngsters to be all things - funny, exasperating, wise beyond their years, daft beyond belief, generous, petty, you name it - and they deliver it all.
Having praised Barnard's clear-eyed gaze, she does find beauty amid the urban ruins, whether it be in the loyalty of the boys to each other, or in the gentle ways of the horses who roam the estate like ghosts, never complaining, always serving.
For a film so small in scope and budget, The Selfish Giant leaves a mighty footprint behind.
Selected release, including Glasgow Film Theatre, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, and DCA, Dundee, from tomorrow