At what point does a movie cease to be miserable for the sake of its plot and just become plain miserable for its viewer? Strangely enough a lot of movies that fall into this kind of common, unofficial thematic pit come from modern tales set in England that mostly rely on fable-based humanistic stories to underline their statements about that country’s dead-end opportunities. Movies like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, Shane Meadow’s This is England, and, most of all, Ken Loach’s Kes all give us not only a reason to feel for their immovable characters as a way to highlight their discouraging tragedy in a poignant manner, but also keeps us emotionally invested in their environment despite a completely bleak outlook. Director Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant seems to exist to do the very opposite. Its desolate characters are undoubtedly its focal point, and they are miserable because they are miserable and there’s not much more to it. Opportunities for the people inhabiting the movie come up not so much for escape but just to get by for the time being, and maybe that’s the point, yet if a movie exists just to inflict emotional pain upon its viewers like this one it wholeheartedly misses the mark.
Very, very loosely adapted from Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Selfish Giant, Barnard’s film is the story of two down and out best buds named Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) who can’t seem to do anything right. Arbor is against all authority be it his mother, brother, or the teachers at school, while Swifty is the gentler companion who bears the responsibility of a deadbeat dad and wasteoid mom and is too dumb to know better about anything other than his interest in horses. Soon they’re both thrown out of school for a mix-up with a bully and from there it gets even more dismal. They take up with a local scrap yard owner named Kitten (Sean Glider) who takes advantage of the pair, giving Arbor the task of picking up scrap-metal and illegal power company wiring while Swifty is given a shot at training the scrapper’s horse for amateur harness races.
The film seems to pile on the unhappiness just because it thinks it should, and any drama that arises never serves to make the story or its characters anymore complex than what was originally presented. It’s gloomy British kitchen sink realism by the numbers, yet it doesn’t understand the need for legitimate social subtext that make kitchen sink dramas the way they are. Sentiments like “I want something better for yeh,” are bandied about by the characters in their thick, working class accents, but there’s no inclination for them to actually want or believe it.
Arbor basically deserves all of the bad things that happen to him because he’s directly responsible for a majority of it, and Chapman’s performance makes you annoyed by him instead of endeared by his faults. Thomas’ performance as Swifty is the only compassionate acting in the entire movie and at least gives enough feeling to basically want him to get away from all the misery. It actually gives us something to latch on to. All of the grown up characters are in one single robotic mode that is really ugly to look at, and they never garner any sympathy from their actions from either the audience or the characters themselves.
Basically the only thing to hang on to is the main friendship between the two, and even that is frustrating. The two obviously believe in one another, but Arbor is such a bad character that constantly leads Swifty the wrong way it just forces us to give up altogether, and when the film leads us to its fatally depressing finale we’re already tapped out enough to shout at the screen that the characters should have known better. If a movie wants to be so uncompromisingly drab it must give a reason to be that way, and unfortunately The Selfish Giant is severely lacking in an understanding of why other better dramas are that way.