Growing pains: Award-winning The Selfish Giant vividly conveys coming of age

by Mark Burger

Writer/director Clio Barnard’s laudable feature debut The Selfish Giant is an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde story yet is unmistakably rooted in a contemporary setting. The unflinching approach that Barnard brings to the proceedings is one of stinging immediacy.

The story focuses on two adolescent boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Comparisons could be made to Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer – despite the cussing, fighting and occasional sips of beer – yet they more often recall George and Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with Arbor a more hot-tempered George and Swifty a brighter Lennie.

Even at only 13 years of age, the future looks mighty bleak indeed for Arbor and Swifty. The hardscrabble town they call home is less a city than an industrial suburb, replete with nuclear power plant looming in the background, and their respective parents and elders are caught up in their own (mostly self-made) problems to offer much practical guidance. For the most part, they’re

on their own – especially after they are expelled from school.

The British dialects are so thick that subtitles have been conveniently included, but it’s not hard to decipher the emotional and economic depression, nor the occasional moments of childlike glee that the boys experience. Yet even those glimmers of hope prove illusory or, worse, deceptive.

Newcomers Chapman and Thomas are effortlessly convincing as the brotherly duo, not so much playing their roles as inhabiting them. There’s also strong work from Sean Gilder as a local wheeler-dealer who pays the boys for procuring scrap metal and illegal cable. His “Kitten” is something of a latter-day Fagin, providing unlikely (and unwitting) inspiration while still using them. Yet, much like The Selfish Giant itself, a human heart beats under a rough exterior. !

The Selfish Giant is scheduled to open Friday at a/perture Cinema in Winston- Salem.

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