On the heels of Clio Barnard's hailed debut, The Arbor, comes the equally devastating The Selfish Giant, in which the British writer-director again depicts a generation failed by an unsympathetic system. From the very first frame, Barnard so assuredly and imaginatively captures an abandoned underclass that viewers will be hard-pressed to connect the script to its Oscar Wilde origins—Dickens pops to mind much more quickly.
But Barnard's screenplay was indeed inspired by a fable by Wilde, and she transplants that story's garden to the contemporary, post-industrial wasteland of the northern English countryside. For adolescent hothead Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his pudgy pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas), it's obvious life isn't going to get any better, especially after Arbor's incessant tantrums get them expelled from school.
The boys are neighbors in the housing projects and soulmates in their attempts to provide for their families—Arbor's drug-dealing older brother steals his ADHD meds, while Swifty's jackass pop literally sells the sofa out from under his children. The duo resorts to scavenging metal, which they sell to a dodgy, violent man named Kitten (Sean Gilder). When sensitive Swifty takes a shine to Kitten's prized steed, the adult uses the lad as jockey in illegal road races. Meanwhile, Arbor and Kitten eye a bigger payoff: the high-voltage power lines that loom above their impoverished Yorkshire borough.
The tragedy to come is a foregone conclusion. But just as heartbreaking is the universal resignation that scrapping—one way or another—is these boys' destiny. Hope simply doesn't exist here. Trapped in a fog of claustrophobia, cinematographer Mike Eley casts these rural silhouettes in a depressing yet gorgeous haze.
Barnard's post-Thatcher social realism is hyperspecific—her unflinching vision makes her one of the U.K.'s sharpest filmmakers—and she harnesses astonishing performances from Chapman and Thomas. The first-time actors are so natural in their rapport and so endearing in their friendship that we wish they could have enjoyed a bit more time in Wilde's garden before being spat into the scraps.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: The Selfish Giant opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.