Tough as scrap iron but blessed with a stubbornly tender heart, "Selfish Giant" is a haunting new work from writer-director Clio Barnard that bends the 1888 Oscar Wilde fairy tale "The Selfish Giant" into an entirely new shape. It works on its own, with or without knowledge of the original. A moviegoer need only bring to it some nerve and a little empathy for the lives on screen.
This is a harsh picture, no question. Barnard sets the adaptation in the West Yorkshire town of Bradford. Circumstances are bleak. Arbor, played by Conner Chapman, is a troubled kid, struggling in school, raging against his restlessness and the impoverished resources of his existence. He has little in his life except the friendship of Swifty, played by Shaun Thomas, his partner in scrap-metal collection.
The selfish giant of the title is a Fagin-like character with the deceptively soft name of Kitten (portrayed, with fierce honesty, by Sean Gilder). Kitten runs a scrap yard. The boys rent a horse and cart and pilfer resalable metal wherever they can find it, legally or illegally. With parents' electricity bills to pay and hot meals pretty scarce, the money is desperately needed. Against a backdrop of massive power lines, nuclear power plant towers and grazing sheep, Arbor and Swifty try to stay out of trouble and away from their various tormentors by getting into their own kind of trouble.
Wilde's story lands on the phrase "the wounds of love," and while Barnard's film has no interest in fantastical elements such as talking trees and sympathetic ogres, wounds of love are all over every frame of "Selfish Giant." The movie holds you in its grip, and at a tick over 90 minutes, it's precisely the right length — any longer, really, and the cruelties would become unbearable. Slow on the uptake but openhearted, Swifty has a knack for horses, and Kitten's trotting racehorse, Diesel, needs a rider. Arbor, meantime, needs to feel his efforts to get ahead and fit in, somewhere, aren't for naught.
The way "Selfish Giant" fixes on its central performers, the remarkably natural duo of Chapman and Thomas reveal a great deal through casual action (and casually relentless rough language — this is no kids' movie) and the hazardous ins and outs of their everyday lives. The film, with its rain-soaked and bleakly supple cinematography by Mike Eley, is all of a piece. Barnard's sensibility blends the grim social realism of Ken Loach or Andrea Arnold with a redemptive penchant for dramatic rests, a little silence, some seclusion for the boys at the heart of the story. This is a formidable filmmaker, and although her movie may not be an easy sit, think about it: So many films, many of them good, settle for being only that.
"Selfish Giant" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (harsh language, some violence)
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre