THE SELFISH GIANT
United Kingdom 2013
Directed by Clio Barnard
Running time: 91 minutes
A few signature touches have morphed since THE ARBOR in 2010, Clio Barnard’s impressive work of demiurgic non-fiction. For one, she’s modulated bold formalism into affective melodrama. In that film, the real citizens of an impoverished West Yorkshire neighborhood act out a play by author Andrea Dunbar set in their own neighborhood. The citizens’ voices were then overdubbed by professional voice actors. This resulted in a tiered artifice whose representations grasped at truth by appealing to the possibilities of fiction and nonfiction alike. THE ARBOR’s pleasures were cerebral constructions that demarcated an alternative geography — a platonic vantage point from which to consider the socio-existential antinomies of the terrain. With THE SELFISH GIANT, Barnard has given us a more classical work that’s no less brilliant than its predecessor, even if not so sui-generis. If THE ARBOR’s carefully fabricated polemic summoned something like Shirley Clarke’s PORTRAIT OF JASON, then THE SELFISH GIANT invokes the straightforward, heart-tugging social realist work of Ken Loach and Aki Kaurismäki’s proletariat picaresques.
As the 2014 Oscars approach, the flood of nods, snubs, shortlists and surprises instantiate that cramped cinematic tradition substituted for the boundaries of honorable within the art of the moving image. In this sense, the very institution of the Academy is a nefarious aesthetic snub. Still, a dismissal of the tradition is a dismissal of the art it has come to circumscribe, that is, a rich corpus flush with virtuosities and exquisite contrivances of its own. With THE SELFISH GIANT, Clio Barnard has exhibited a stylistic dexterity both inside and outside of that tradition.
From its very first cut, Barnard evokes a kind of cosmic desperation in the trials of Arbor, the young protagonist of the film. From an extreme wide shot of horses grazing in a twilit field, Barnard goes to a close-up of a half-woken boy pounding his fists on the bunk rails inches above his head. The superimposed effect is that of an angry bedlamite, lamenting his lot in life, slobbering and shaking his fists at the sky. At the end of the film, Barnard gives us an extreme close-up on the eyes of one of those grazing horses and it’s a demanding, insistent gaze; it’s neither benevolent nor pitiless; it operates violently on the conscience. The viewer, naked and immodest before that very horse, pours her own interests and concerns into the animal’s empty ethical inquisition. At this final juncture, the attentive viewer’s concerns have been shaped by a careful series of cinematic metaphors that qualify the human value of a behaviorally disturbed boy growing up in structurally sustained destitution.
“While the British media have understandably drawn a comparison to Loach’s groundbreaking 1969 British film “Kes,” Barnard is just as much following in the footsteps of François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” [and] Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”… I advise you to brace yourself; like those films, “The Selfish Giant” may tear your heart out. But the passion and possibility Barnard shows us among forgotten people in a forgotten place are fully worth it.”
~~ Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
“Barnard brought a surreal magic to the squalor of The Arbor, blending documentary interview with uncanny lip-sync performance, and while she reins in the formal friskiness here, she retains her feel for perverse splendour.”
~~ Charlie Lyne, Little White Lies
“The subject matter sounds hardscrabble, but The Selfish Giantis deeply tender, one of the most touching movies about friendship between men — or boys — I’ve ever seen. This is also the most delicate kind of social realism; it never feels like a screed. Barnard films the landscape matter-of-factly, and she’s open to all its rough, rusty beauty.”
~~ Stephanie Zacharek, The Village Voice
“Barnard realizes the settings in immersive detail, and she elicits some strikingly convincing performances from her cast; Conner Chapman, playing a boy with an untreated behavioral disorder, delivers one of the scariest performances I’ve seen from a child actor. The movie takes its title and narrative structure from a children’s story by Oscar Wilde; as in the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike, the fairy-tale elements bolster the contemporary story with a sense of timelessness.”
~~ Ben Sachs, The Chicago Reader
“For all its relentless horrors (and dear Lord does this movie go to some terrible places),The Selfish Giant never feels predictable. Credit the remarkable young actors, as well as Barnard’s observant style: Every moment in this film is alive with possibility, with the chance that everything will go haywire in a new way.”
~~ Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
“[Chapman and Thomas] deliver surprisingly powerful performances, driving the film forward with a palpable—and at times heart-wrenching—energy that overrides the screenplay’s minor flaws. The physicality of the overgrown Swifty and exceptionally runty Arbor make them a particularly endearing odd couple to watch, and their friendship feels real, from start to tragic finish… The film’s final image completes a full visual circle that is sure to make even the stiffest upper lip quiver with emotion.”
~~ Emma Meyers, Film Comment
“Having chosen to pitch her stall this time directly on the royal road of British art cinema, Barnard nevertheless brings a distinctive poetic spin to her material, making the film as much a study of the porous boundary between town and country as Kes was. There’s a strikingly eerie ruralist magic to the repeated shots of horses standing on horizons at night – Barnard and DP Mike Eley make strong, often stylised use of horizontals…”
~~ Jonathan Romney, Sight & Sound
“[Chapman] has a camera-controlling physical swagger, with a dry, peppery wit to his line delivery that draws him instantly level with any adult performer in a scene… There’s nothing scrappy about the filmmaking on display here. Where “The Arbor,” for all its innovation in other departments, retained a certain televisual quality to its construction, “The Selfish Giant” is boldly, broodingly cinematic.”
~~ Guy Lodge, Variety