Though initially inspired by the Oscar Wilde children’s story of the same name, this harrowing work of social realism from British writer-director Clio Barnard plays more like a Charles Dickens tale updated for post-industrial England. The Selfish Giant tells the story of hyperactive 13-year-old Arbor and his mild-mannered best friend Swifty, an odd couple who balance each other out in a shared daily quest for survival. When both get thrown out of school for fighting off bullies they turn to full-time scrapping — collecting and then stealing valuable scrap metals under the growing influence of a Fagin-like junkyard owner named Kitten — to help their families survive the scourges of drugs, debts, and poverty. Barnard and cinematographer Mike Eley find great visual beauty in the fractured landscape, which only underlines the hopelessness of the kids’ surroundings. Non-professional child actors Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas do a remarkable job as Arbor and Swifty, and their unaffected presence keeps The Selfish Giant from dissolving into pure tragedy. (English subtitles for the English language dialogue allow us entry into the boys’ impenetrable mix of working class slang and thick Northern accents.) It isn’t easy to watch but the rewards run deep.
The Selfish Giant begins a two-week run tonight at Zeitgeist Movies. More info here.