Extraordinary risk is the price many of society’s most vulnerable pay in return for some pocket change and a brief rush from the novel sensation of optimism. Thirteen-year-old middle-school dropout Arbor (Conner Chapman) gets hooked on that feeling in the The Selfish Giant, British director Clio Barnard’s deservedly lauded narrative debut.
At the heart of the social-realist drama is the friendship between Arbor and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). In his blond fauxhawk and perma-stained clothes, Arbor is the kind of enterprising kid whose ambitions are seen as a threat by the adults around him. Compared to his pal’s runt-of-the-litter frame, Swifty looks like a young bear, but his big, wet eyes and familial poverty make him a target of bullies.
Both boys come from broken or dysfunctional homes, though Barnard makes clear their lack of academic success isn’t a judgment against their mostly sympathetic mothers. Stuck in the kind of small, hopeless Midlands town where everyone’s English necessitates subtitles (which the film provides), Arbor and Swifty turn to scavenging for, then stealing, scrap metal after getting kicked out of school.
Their first mode of cargo transport is an abandoned pram, but they soon upgrade to borrowing a pony from the metal-buyer to carry bigger loads. But the inherent danger of their work eventually catches up to them, leading to a heartbreaking third act whose emotional power cannot be overstated.
Devastating in its simplicity and honesty, The Selfish Giant is a colossus of feeling.