Submitted to the BFI-
The Selfish Giant
This story of two Bradford boys that are excluded from school and sent to hunt scrap to make ends meet seems so utterly unlike anything I have seen in a cinema that I could not immediately accept its sincerity. The clarity with which Clio Barnard depicts the antagonistic relationship between two young, teenage boys and a hostile world is in fact achingly sincere. Like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, The Selfish Giant captures its moment in a way that journalism and political discourse have failed to, but Barnard has added a grandeur of style that reinvigorates social realism with a new sense of purpose.
The Selfish Giant shows us not a small amount of unspeakable realities. The boys are pictured in hungry households with too many mouths to feed, their child labour often goes badly rewarded, and their social exclusion is absolute. But the relationship between the two boys Swifty and Arbor is so fraught with competitiveness and love that it captivates utterly and goes beyond the sombre realities. The children carry the joy and burden of their roles with a youthful determination, talking back to older men and defending themselves from the worst of their exploiters. But we never forget that these boys are children and their vulnerability is ever present.
The colouring seems highly measured, unreal desaturated greens and greys, and perhaps this grandiosity lifts us a little too far up and out of the realities of these boys lives. While the sincerity of the storytelling convinces in earlier sequences, the final frames lose track of their subject. The powerful humanising element of the film, that gave a voice to the children of poverty, is brutally taken away by a premature death. The contrived sequence feels wrong, and is a bad mis-step in a film that is otherwise a thoughtful piece of realism.