Conceptual artist turned filmmaker Clio Barnard won the Best British Newcomer award at the 2010 London Film Festival with her remarkable debut feature The Arbor, an experimental drama-documentary portrait of ill-fated Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, which saw actors lip-synching to recorded interviews with people who knew the writer during her short troubled life. Taking inspiration from the social realism of Ken Loach and a title from a story by Oscar Wilde, her second film follows a more conventional narrative but is no less impressive or powerful.
The Selfish Giant revolves around a pair of young teenage friends from the same deprived Bradford housing estate that was the setting for The Arbor, two children from an already marginalised community whom Barnard shows being pushed even further to the edges of society.
Live-wire Arbor (Conner Chapman) has ADHD, a single-parent mum and a thieving, drug-addicted older brother; placid, gentle Swifty (Shaun Thomas) comes from an even more chaotic and underprivileged home, which makes him the object of bullying outside of it.
And it's when the duo get excluded from school after the fiercely loyal Arbor stands up for Swifty in a fight, that they get drawn into the orbit of local scrap dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder), hiring his horse and cart to go scavenging for discarded metal. But Kitten doesn't just trade in old pots and pans and abandoned fridges. He also deals in the lucrative cable that can be plundered from railway lines and electricity stations, a prize that has a dangerous lure for the entrepreneurial Arbor.
A work of deep compassion and shrewd insight, Barnard's superb film is eye-opening in many different ways. She shows us aspects of modern Britain that will be unfamiliar to most viewers, such as the illegal sport that is Kitten's sideline, racing two-wheeled horse traps along public roads at dawn - the subject of an earlier short film by Barnard which here yields a thrilling, hectic scene in which two competing horses are pursued and surrounded by a jostling mob of car-borne supporters.
And, with perfectly composed shots of the boys riding their horse in the early morning light, or of sheep grazing beneath pylons, she reveals the unexpected beauty of the liminal spaces between town and countryside, between the post-industrial and natural worlds.
But Barnard's greatest achievement is to make us look again at people whom society would prefer to write off and ignore, difficult wayward kids like Arbor and Swifty, the kind we tend to see only as problems. The wonderfully naturalistic performances by Barnard's first-time actors bring Arbor and Swifty to vivid, vigorous life.
And what comes across clearly is that these rejected boys possess many of those virtues that society traditionally prizes, such as loyalty, self-reliance and resilience. If we fail to harness their potential, an exploitative figure like Kitten most surely will. Kitten is the most obvious candidate for the giant of the film's title - a vestigial trace of Wilde's original story - but it's clear that, for Barnard, the true selfish giant is society's prevailing ethos of greed.
Certificate 15. Runtime 91 mins. Director Clio Barnard.
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