Rating: B+/ Yes, this is ‘yet another depressing British movie,’ but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the world needs these stories just a much, if not more, than we need the candy-colored cathartic ones. The Selfish Giant gives us a unrelentingly real look into a world of poverty and deprivation, a working-class Northern English community where the kids run wild and the adults offer minors no support whatsoever as they eke out an existence of hard luck and toil.
The tale centers around two boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas,) who spend their afternoons taking scrap metal to the proprietor of a junkyard, named Kitten (Sean Gilder) and making some much-needed money in exchange. Arbor is a towheaded little hellion who defies authority at every turn and is fed a steady diet of medication for his arbitrary ‘rages.’ Swifty, the sweeter of the two boys by far, is tormented by his classmates for his squalid living conditions and bad hygiene but refuses to fight back. He has a special affinity for horses and treats them with a kindness that was never offered to him.
We see immediately that the scrap dealer, Kitten, is bad business, a volatile force of nature who in all likelihood is going to leave someone maimed or dead. He bribes boys into swiping old metal and beat up lengths of electrical cord despite the fact that such an act is a federal crime and will probably end up with boys in prison. Arbor and Swifty get kicked out of school after a fight (to which Swifty was only an onlooker, not a participant) and they find, much to their delight, that they have all day to collect scrap for Kitten.
The boys’ mothers shake their heads in resignation, they know what their kids really need is an education; they’ve seen so many youngsters go down this road before. Both mothers’ most desperate hope for their sons is for them to get the hell out of dodge and make lives for themselves outside the hopeless squalor they came out of. The Selfish Giant offers a nice raw minimalist feel that is omnipresent in British social realism films, a bleak tone, and two pretty good performances by it’s child actors.
Some people might be set off by the treatment of the horses, but the cruelty presented therein is much like the abuse of the dogs in the somewhat similar film Tyrannosaur: symbolic of society’s cruel treatment of it’s weakest members. In a world of shattered dreams and hopelessness, the horses are collateral damage, and only seen for monetary value by the brutal Kitten. Only Swifty uses them in a humane, caring way, and that makes him extraordinary in a town of liars and crackheads. Warning; don’t expect a happy ending to wrap this film up in a neat little package. It’s rough, rough the way films like Tyrannosaur or Nil By Mouth are rough. it reminds me of what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said; “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” What saves these movies from outright nihilism is that there seems to be a spiritual center to the films, if not exactly a glow of happiness and good will.
The Selfish Giant doesn’t so much offer a big ‘fuck you’ to humanity as it does examine the ways people lose people lose their souls along the way. Unless something stops his progression to heartless monster, Arbor will end up much like Kitten- hard, mean, and very much out of options. That’s what the mothers of the two lead boys want to prevent Arbor’s brother Martin (Elliot Tittensor) has already made to transformation to ruthless degenerate. We see what these boys are becoming and where they came from, and we hope for the best for them even though we assume the worst.
The Selfish Giant is a tragedy that nonetheless has glimmers of hope throughout, although most are crushed out by the film’s sombering final scenes. The actors create the illusion that you are watching reality play out on screen. I hope this movie will eventually get a wider audience among the film lovers of the world and the boy actors will find further roles and eventually, success. A disturbing film that nonetheless finds some redemption among even it’s most unsavory characters, The Selfish Giant will make your soul hurt. But if you’re into that kind of thing, the film will offer a treasure trove of hurts-so-good pathos.