In Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” there’s a mean old giant who won’t let children play in his garden. Then—and this is all from long-dormant memory—a permanent winter settles in on his garden. Then he lets the kids in to play. Then it’s eternal spring,
and everyone is as happy as one can possibly be in a story that also has some kind of weird Jesus-y overtones.
If only life were so happy in writer-director Clio Barnard's very loose adaptation. Never has a movie been so well scripted, helmed, acted and edited that you will never want to see in your life.
Never has a lead character, Arbor (Conner Chapman), been so good in a role that you wanted to murder him. Never has a selfish giant, Kitten (Sean Gilder), been so selfish that you hope the eternal spring never comes to his garden (here the garden is played by a scrapyard). By God, The Selfish Giant is so unremittingly bleak it makes Ken Loach look like a rank amateur.
Charitably, The Selfish Giant would fall under the umbrella of "social realism." That film term was invented for guys such as Loach who make beautifully acted and directed films about people who are under shit's thumb, barely scraping by, and often turning to petty larceny or fighting or generally doing other dickish things to pass the time.
Here, we have Arbor and his kind-hearted friend, Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Arbor has some kind of behavioral disorder—I'm guessing ADHD—for which he takes medication. He has an older brother who's a foul-mouthed jerk, a mother who can't control him, and an absentee father.
Swifty, on the other hand, has a mother who cares for him, but she's on a Forrest Gump level of smarts. His father is a foulmouthed, barely-scraping-byshout-at-everyone-asshole.
This is the part of social realism that's hard to take. Most of the people in these movies, through no fault of their own, are born into rotten circumstances. Then, because they see no way out, they do things to make their situations worse.
Arbor and Swifty weren't just dealt a bad hand, though; they're actively morons. Arbor has a nasty case of douchebaggery to go with it. The only on-screen child I've ever hated more is Cyril (Thomas Doret) from The Kid with a Bike.
But back to The Selfish Giant.
Arbor and Swifty are kicked out of school—Arbor permanently and Swifty for 10 days—for doing something stupid. (I looked at my notes but they do so many dumb
things I can't be sure which is the thing that gets them removed from school. I'm going to go with fighting.)
To keep busy and get their families out of financial trouble, they start working for Kitten, who runs a scrapyard. Soon they're stealing copper wire. Kitten has a horse that Swifty has a natural ease with, and soon Kitten and Swifty are bonding over the horse and Arbor is feeling left out.
Can you see where this is going? Even if you're not right with the specifics, your guess—it's all going to end badly—is correct. That's not even a spoiler; movies like this exist to have rotten things happen to good (or in this case, kind of bad) people.
Say it with me: If a movie is in English but still has subtitles, and it takes place in a part of the world where people use the words "twat" and "cunt" more often than any other word, the movie is going to have a bleaker than bleak ending.
To reiterate, The Selfish Giant has a stellar screenplay, surefooted direction and superior acting. It's just that the story it tells is so emotionally wrenching, it's hard to recommend to anyone.
THE SELFISH GIANT
Directed by Clio Barnard
With Conner Chapman, Sean Gilder and Shaun Thomas