Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
January 9, 2014
*** (out of four)
"The Selfish Giant" contains subtitles, even though the U.K.-set drama is in English. Probably because not all American viewers can understand terms like "Pikey scruff" through the thick accents, and those who can simply will think, "Did he just say `pikey scruff'?"
However, unlike the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival entry "Lad: A Yorkshire Story" -- I know you didn't see that, but that title speaks volumes -- "The Selfish Giant" isn't so dully British that it was foolish to bring it across the pond. Thirteen-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) is troublesome and fearless, with the stones to tell cops to take their shoes off when coming into his house. Fittingly, the scrappy kid wants to be a scrap-man -- making money off found/stolen wire and metal instead of going to school. When he's expelled (which is called, more daintily, "excluded"), he tells his suspended pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas), "Brilliant, eh? Don't have to go to school."
Written and directed by Cannes award-winner Clio Barnard, "The Selfish Giant," based on an Oscar Wilde story, creates a strong sense of its blue-collar factory town and the unhappy people who live there. Barnard's a promising filmmaker, already showing a lot of confidence in her feature debut. She neither rushes the story nor lets it flatline and deserves some credit for the immensely believable friendship depicted by the young, first-time actors.
It gives little away to say that the slow "Giant" goes somewhere inevitably tragic, and it's no surprise who bears the greatest weight of the incident. The film might make a devastating short, with the beautifully captured scenic detail and quantity of story more in balance.
Yet under the kids' rebellion and the local guy named Kitten (Sean Gilder) who treats youngsters like adults is a quietly upsetting coming-of-age story about the many people and places that can be considered a "bad influence," and the fact that not everyone gets much of a practical chance to get it right. Which isn't an excuse; it's just the way life is sometimes.
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