Considering that the Cannes experience consists mostly of critics and other assorted ornery types shambling into theaters, sitting in front of a screenful of flickering images for a few hours and then, like Flash Gordon’s Mole People, tumbling back out into daylight, news travels surprisingly fast.
Earlier today, a colleague and I had just stepped out of a midmorning screening of a rather steamy and interesting little thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, when a third colleague began thinking aloud about what he might see next. Earlier in the morning, some of our friends who are surprisingly adept at being in two places at once had seen a picture called The Selfish Giant, screening not in the main competition, but in the Quinzaine, or Directors’ Fortnight, section of the festival. Our colleague told us what he’d heard about the movie, and warned us that it was probably going to be upsetting; a Cannes programmer had told him he still feels a little melancholy every time he thinks about it.
My friend and I looked at each other dubiously. We’d already been subjected to a puppy-killing (faked, but still) at the festival’s first screening, Amat Escalante’s harrowing but effective Heli. Were we up for more emotional weightlifting, and so soon? I didn’t think so. But I found myself strangely drawn toward The Selfish Giant, adapted from a story by Oscar Wilde. And as it turns out, this debut fiction feature from British director Clio Barnard will, I’m certain, end up being one of my favorite pictures of the festival.
Two child actors, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, neither of whom has worked professionally before, play best mates Arbor and Swifty, kids growing up on the housing estates of Bradford. Arbor’s family has little money and a passel of problems; Swifty’s family has even less money and even more problems. But the two — one a hyperactive scrapper with an anger-management problem, the other a kind, intuitive kid with a knack for handling horses — balance each other out. Their connection is mostly unspoken, though it finds its chief outlet in bickering and teasing. Each, for different reasons, is ill-equipped to make his way in the world, but together they’re oddly graceful — their friendship is a kind of ragged poetry.
Arbor, the more enterprising of the two, persuades Swifty to help him collect junk to sell to the local scrap-metal dealer (played by Sean Gilder, in a performance that takes a wrenching turn, with just one line, late in the movie). Electrical cable in particular is highly prized, but also difficult to collect–or steal. And so these schoolboys, driven partly by the desire to help their families and partly by some unspoken need to define themselves, become working men, toughening up in ways they’re not quite ready for.
The subject matter sounds hardscrabble, but The Selfish Giant is deeply tender, one of the most touching movies about friendship between men — or boys — I’ve ever seen. This is also the most delicate kind of social realism; it never feels like a screed. Barnard films the landscape matter-of-factly, and she’s open to all its rough, rusty beauty. Horses graze placidly in a field festooned with power line, oblivious to the whys and wherefores of electrical currents and telecommunication cables. Similarly, Chapman and Thomas give performances that are rooted in the natural world and yet also seem to hover in a brutally spiritual place just above it. The Selfish Giant earns all of its emotion the honest way. If it’s at times painful to watch, in the end it gives back much more than it takes. It’s generous and steadfast, like true friendship itself.