Rooted in the great British tradition of kitchen-sink realism, The Selfish Giant is a fine work, aided by strong, truthful performances (especially from its two young stars, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) and poetic, lucid direction from Clio Barnard. Very loosely based on a short story by Oscar Wilde, we follow Arbor (Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Thomas) as the two young teenagers are expelled from school for fighting, finding themselves drawn into the scrap-metal business under the ambiguous Kitten (Sean Gilder). Living in the dingy council suburbs of Bradford, the two boys have evidently lived most of their lives in poverty, with Swifty also having to deal with xenophobia due to his Irish Traveller heritage (not helped by the fact that his father is an abusive, debt-ridden alcoholic).
The spirit of Ken Loach, in particular his most famed film, Kes (1969), looms large here with both films turning on relationships built between kids and animals. Then again the tradition of British cinematic realism that Ken Loach emerged from in the 60s goes all the way back to Italian Neorealism in the 1940s and from even before that in literature and theatre. Like all good realist films, The Selfish Giant is built on lyricism and detail rather than documentary fact, and Clio Barnard has an eye for framing the film in the landscape of Northern post-industrial England—rolling hills, forlorn power stations, dewy morning fog.
Just as important is the empathy and understanding she brings to the characters: even the ostensible villain of the piece, Kitten, who sends the boys out to steal scrap metal so as to avoid being caught himself, is portrayed as a complex figure ridden with guilt and worry, offset by financial goblins weighing on his back. He contemplates becoming a reluctant father figure to Swifty, noticing the boy’s talent around horses, and encouraging the boy to train his prize horse for races. Though even his kinder acts have the air of exploitation about them, there is an evident understanding within the film that this is more a by-product of systematic inequality in the UK, rather than willing, intentionally harmful exploitation. The relationship between working animals and working children that Barnard draws here works as a fine metaphor for the general state of working relations in most areas of deprived, inner-city Britain.
Most important to the film however, are the excellent performances Barnard draws from Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. The two never come across as anything other than themselves, two otherwise ignored kids that bind together as a defence mechanism against the Darwinian social structure of high school and the wider world, with Swifty being the larger, gentler and more thoughtful of the two and Arbor a perpetual ball of rage, energy and bubbling insecurity, egged on by copious amounts of energy drink. Ultimately, without their presence and truthfulness at the centre of the film, there would be little to praise about The Selfish Giant. However, with them it stands as an excellent example of contemporary British realism, alive to the ill-effects, debilitations and arrogance of Thatcherism and Blairism on the landscape of Britain outside of its major cities.