After Clio Barnard's inventively presented 2010 documentary The Arbor received raves everywhere, anticipation for the British director's first feature-length film, playing in the Directors' Fortnight, was high. And she delivers with a deceptively simple, deeply resonating fairy tale about friendship and loyalty, in an adaptation from one of the stories in Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The film is already generating a lot of buzz on the Croisette, and while her way of telling the story is more conventional than her previous outing, it is safe to say that Barnard is now two-for-two and looking at a very promising future.
Like The Arbor, The Selfish Giant is set in the lower-class environment of Bradford. The protagonists are 11-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) and the slightly older Swifty (Shaun Thomas), friends through thick and thin. Both outcasts within their peer groups, and with a multitude of problems at home (Arbor has a drug-dealing brother, plus he suffers from ADHD; Swifty faces an abusive father), the two youngsters' bond is easily formed. If we were to see them as a muscle-and-brains outfit, Arbor would be the fast-talking troublemaker of the duo, making up for his scrawny appearance, and the good-natured Swifty would be the muscle. After being expelled from school, Arbor for good and Swifty for ten days, they start work for a local scrap dealer called Kitten (Sean Gilder), collecting scrap from the streets using a horse and cart. Swifty is already, early on, showing a knack for handling horses, a quality that will later turn out to be detrimental to their relationship.
At first, Kitten is taken by Arbor's bravura, giving the young boy a hard time, but clearly with a weak spot for the lad. However, when Swifty shows his talent with horses, the greedy Kitten, who engages in high-stakes sulky road races with a horse he won, switches his attention and affection to the older boy. This causes a rift between Arbor and Swifty as the former is yet again disappointed by the father figure he is looking for, having none at home. While their friendship lasts, Arbor's attemtps to win back the attention of Kitten lead to a tragic event with dire consequences for both kids. Their loyalty and willingness to stick up for each other lasts until the end, though, even if their friendship is forever changed. The last ten minutes are heartbreaking, showing Arbor desperately trying to make up for his earlier mistakes with a tenacity that makes one wonder what the boy could have made of himself if he hadn't grown up in such an adverse environment. As such, The Selfish Giant can be seen as an indictment of the potential wasted by society when it makes outcasts of the lower classes. While the selfish giant of the title is actually Kitten, as revealed by Barnard in the Q&A, a case could be made for capitalism being the selfish giant that exploits the lower classes and then disposes of them when they've lost their value, with Kitten serving as a metaphor for that.
Barnard's strength lies in her understanding of the milieu she is portraying, even if it is far removed from her own background, and her ability to portray the humanity still existing at the bottom of the barrel. The way characters treat each other in the film is often abusive, but enough little signs remain to show that the brutality is a manifestation of hopelessness and impotence, and that there is still the ability to love and care underneath. Arbor and Swifty sticking up for each other no matter what illustrates that loyalty goes a long way in a community where everybody is down and out. No matter their differences, these people will stand up for their own when push comes to shove, a tighter-knit community than they themselves might be willing to admit.
The true discoveries of the film are the two young boys. Both Chapman and Thomas give deeply affecting performances, all the more impressive when you realize that this is basically the first serious acting in front of a camera they have ever done (Chapman had a small part in The Arbor). Vulnerability and despair shine through in Chapman's Arbor, and Thomas is equally amazing as the good-natured Swifty, not giving up on his friend even when he feels him slipping away. Where the film also excels is in its nuanced portrayal of Kitten, not the one-note evil antagonist that lesser screenplays would make of him. An action late in the film shows he harbors responsibility and protectiveness inside him, and even earlier, underneath the tough exterior, there is admiration for both boys.
Comparisons of Clio Barnard's work to Ken Loach's kitchen-sink dramas are easily made, and they are valid, but I have a feeling that Barnard is fully capable of branching out to be equally effective in other genres. She is certainly one of the up-and-coming directors to keep an eye on.