Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant has relatively little to do with the Oscar Wilde children’s tale of the same name, but the title gives you an idea of where the director’s heart lies. Somehow both austere yet magical, it’s a grim, kitchen-sink coming-of-age story that keeps threatening to turn into a dark fable. But it’s a fable written with shards of anger and despair. It’s about two 13-year-old boys of opposing energies: Arbor (Conner Chapman) is agitated, restless — when we first see him, he’s frantically slamming his fists in unspecified fury underneath his bed, a spot that serves as both a refuge and a prison. His accepting, possibly dim pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas) seems to be the only one who can temper this inner rage; when he extends Arbor his hand to let him out from under the bed, Barnard lingers on their clasp with an almost spiritual solemnity.
These kids aren’t just ordinary fuck-ups: There’s something clinical to both of them. We see Arbor being medicated, and the doughy Swifty is constantly bullied and called a “retard.” (He does have a real understanding of horses, though, which suggests that he’s actually bright, just pathologically lacking in confidence and real-world smarts.) Their homes are a mess, they suck at school, and they’re constantly picked on by the other kids for their poverty. Together, they would rather collect and sell scrap metal to a local black market dealer named Kitten (Sean Gilder) than do anything else. There’s certainly a lot of scrap metal in the blighted, rural-industrial corner of England where they live, but grabbing it is not easy work, and often involves dealing with dangerous, live-wire cables. (There’s a metaphor there, of course, but to its credit the film doesn’t belabor it.)
These kids’ specific problems might make them hard to relate to; when Arbor mouths off and acts out in class, most viewers will probably find themselves identifying more with the beleaguered teacher than the ostensible protagonist. But when they’re together, Arbor and Swifty also display devotion, bravery, honesty. Together, they create a personal ecosystem that will be familiar to anyone who has had a best friend, a loyal foil and confidante who kept them sane, whether as a child, a teen, or an adult.
And that, of course, just serves to make this unceasingly sad film even more heartbreaking. “Miserabilism” can be a dirty word nowadays — with some reason, since it can be an easy source of lazy, unearned pathos. But 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.
As in Barnard’s debut feature The Arbor, a documentary/narrative/performance-piece fusion that was staggering in its originality and thoroughly unyielding in its hopelessness, there's a vitality to the despair here that keeps us watching. The Selfish Giant is less avant-garde, more straightforward than that earlier film, but there’s still a strange, focused poetry to her direction. Barnard cuts occasionally to striking landscapes that seem less pastoral and more haunted, with giant, spectral factories looming in the background. Such shots are calm, quiet, and never reassuring: It’s as if a diseased peace has settled over this cursed land.