Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant doesn’t have too many overt similarities with the Oscar Wilde story from which it derives its name but it certainly shares something of its fable-like and melancholic tone. It’s an impressively spare and naturalistic film set in a deprived Northern city where the only opportunities for advancement available to two lads from disadvantaged backgrounds who find themselves excluded from school are in the gift of the hardbitten foreman of a scrap metal yard. One of the boys, the gentle Swifty, has an affinity with the horses and ponies that are still used for transporting the dodgily acquired cable and spare parts that represent what passes for currency at this level of society and starts to see a future for himself as a rider in one of the illegal but exhilarating cart races that regularly take place on public highways at the crack of dawn. The talents of his friend Arbor, on the other hand, lie more in the area of having the gall to strike cocky deals anywhere he can and being fearless enough to go after the kind of electrical parts that any scavenger with a sense of self-preservation would leave well alone.
The most obvious influence on The Selfish Giant is Kes, and like that film it’s likely to become a bit of an enduring classic of disenfranchised youth and doomed aspirations by virtue of its clear, uncluttered and often courageously quiet filming style (there’s no music soundtrack, for example, and the credits at the start are more or less non-existent), the uniformly excellent and entirely convincing acting particularly from Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas as the two young leads and the complete absence of any high-handed moralising. It’s too well crafted and composed to be mistaken for a documentary but you have no trouble believing that things like this happen and that makes the eventual dramatic reverses at the end of the film that much more gut-wrenching. My only real problem with it is that sometimes there seems a bit of a mismatch between the frenetic and chaotic lives of the two boys and the studied, neutral way they’re observed by the camera – please go see the Dardenne Brothers’ brilliant The Kid On A Bike for an example of how a director (or pair of directors) can really make you feel the fizz of a young man on a mission. Nonetheless, this is a pretty impressive and moving film that easily transcends the average run-of-the-mill Brit-movie bleakness.