dir. Clio Barnard
To describe Clio Barnard’s new film The Selfish Giant as more conventional than her feature-length debut The Arbor, an experimental outlier in the documentary genre, is a misleading comparison. Both set in the director’s hometown of Bradford, while the theatrical roots and subject-matter of her earlier work necessitated a stylistically hybrid approach, her modern retelling of Oscar Wilde’s parable relies on the coming-of-age formula to tell a simple story using a familiar visual language effectively. As with typical young adult cinema, it draws a digestible and clearly delineated arc of transformation for its protagonist; an angry young man, miserable and unkempt, encounters the cold, hard reality of adulthood along with a traumatic event for which he shares culpability. The movie’s formulaic bent and social realist look at the story world recall at once its most recent Hollywood and art cinema predecessors.
Early this year, Jeff Nichols followed his much-lauded sophomore Take Shelter with another critics’ darling Mud, a fairy tale set in the American South that fairly adheres to the classical Hollywood style. In it, a boy, discontent with his family, desires a flawless home, looks to a mysterious hobo for a father replacement and the possibility of unbreakable love, but ends up gradually disenchanted and leaving his soon-to-be-demolished home. A change of scenery, an obvious metaphor for transitioning, accompanies catharsis similarly in British films about adolescence by Arnold and Ramsay—except that they conclude on a reasonably ambiguous note, instead of providing an unmistakable sense of closure. Ambiguity figures more heavily in The Kid with a Bike, where the Dardenne brothers almost deliberately omit context and backstory, though it’s all the same a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled child in need of proper care. To explore The Selfish Giant in relation to the aforesaid bunch may yield a reductive analysis, but still a constructive one, because doing so would illuminate the film’s ingenious blend of coming-of-age tropes and cinematic practices.
Structural conventionality inherent in Barnard’s work is mostly attributable to its parabolic aspect à la Mud and True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ Western and another recent American Bildungsroman but of greater moral import. They all tap into animal symbolism—whether that’s rattlesnakes or horses—as an indication of change occurring in the mind of our hero or heroine as they suffer the consequences of their choices and actions but are granted salvation at the end of their journey. The price of redemption is a theme embedded in this type of narrative, and The Selfish Giant also assumes the form of cautionary tale. Then there is guilt, a psychological and moral experience that greatly affects Barnard’s protagonist Arbor as well as the main characters in the other British films. We watch James in Ratcatcher becoming consumed by guilt after inadvertently causing his friend to drown; Mia in Fish Tank impulsively abducts the daughter of her mother’s deceitful boyfriend but soon feels ashamed and returns her home.
It’s this interplay between character subjectivity and the filmmaker’s urge to faithfully represent reality, namely between the character’s private feelings and an objective observation of their surroundings, that deepens each movie's emotional resonance. Following the tradition of British social realism or so-called miserablism, the said helmers probe the minds of alienated youth but simultaneously depict them as part of the UK working-class experience. While plagued with personal predicaments, the children slip through the cracks of the system and become marginalized. Like Ramsay and Arnold, Barnard intersperses the main events with landscape cutaways as either establishing shots or pauses between the scenes, letting the ambiance of the Bradford neighborhood sink in. Some of those shots set or switch the mood; some anticipate a major conflict or crisis for our hero. The adolescent’s crisis is indeed highly circumstantial rather than purely existential. Deprived and underprivileged, the children also lack an exemplary adult figure, even if the adults are not reducible to clean-cut evil archetypes. They appear more complex than they get credit for and ambivalent—they seem almost absent one minute but then concerned and caring the next. Soon after being expelled from school, Arbor and his best friend Swifty start working for a scrapyard operator who at first seems exploitative but later willing to take the whole blame for the movie’s central tragedy.
The similarities among the referenced films are interesting to look at, but their stylistic differences are also worth examining. By relegating the camera to the mere role of trailing Cyril, the Dardennes ostensibly seek zero-degree naturalism, save the occasional classical music cues. The Brits however do not shy away from a bit of romanticizing or schematizing, if not as conspicuously as Mud does, while keeping it real. In Ratcatcher, Ramsay juxtaposes shots based on overt visual connections. After the drowning of his friend, James runs home as neighbors haul the body from the water, which is being watched by James’ mother from inside the flat. Upon his arrival, an extreme close-up of James’ face cuts to that of his friend’s lifeless face and subsequently, the mother’s hand to the dead child’s. In Fish Tank, Arnold patterns motifs like Mia’s dancing in a way that charts her growth by phases—her desire to escape, sexual exploration and eventual reconciliation with and outgrowing of her old home.
Barnard seems to value gestures and metaphors as well, if not more. Arbor and Swifty’s relationship as portrayed here may well be summed up in two crucial elements: the close-up of an extended hand, and a focus shift between the boys placed in different planes of a single shot. The recurring image of Swifty’s hand resonates anew each time it fills the screen; it’s the pinnacle of the film’s literary inspiration. And Barnard only implies a strain in their friendship by alternately bringing them into focus—exchanging or stealing glances prompting such shifts allude to some misunderstanding or disconnect and, in turn, to a weakening bond. This technique draws less attention to the emotional undercurrents of a scene than, say, the montage-style editing does, but it’s still more expressive than the Dardenne-esque realist approach.
In The Selfish Giant, Barnard tinges her poignant tale with the images and sounds of impending doom and gloom. She infuses landscape shots with the amplified sounds of overhead power lines, pylons, clanging scrap metal, and with the bleakness of cloudy skies and dewy grass. The harshness and coldness of those long shots is balanced out by the warmth and empathy of extended hands and tender faces—in fact, the contrast makes the latter even more strongly felt. The film’s potent imagery and sound design is indeed the greatest factor in defining the sort of coming-of-age story it aims to become. And last but certainly not least, the young actors who were hand-picked by the director to play Arbor and Swifty more than fit the part; they elevate the movie to a far more sublime level.