The Selfish Giant, directed by Clio Barnard

The Selfish Giant, directed by Clio Barnard

This carefully crafted rites of passage drama contests mainstream contempt for the poor while pulling no punches regarding their increasingly desperate circumstances.

Scrapheap Soul. Film review - Tom Jennings

After The Arbor (2010),* an innovative drama-documentary about playwright Andrea Dunbar's short and troubled life in Buttershaw, Bradford, writer-director Clio Barnard's new feature fiction coaxes memorable performances from local amateurs playing young teenagers from families imploding in poverty in the same location. Written-off like the rest of their sink estate and excluded from school for refusing to 'Be Positive', Arbor (Conner Chapman), a prickly ADHD pocket-dynamo, and his rather larger, placid and contemplative best pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas) stumble across the postindustrial recycling orchestrated by scrapdealer Kitten (Sean Gilder) offering gainful, if illicit, employment. Arbor's talent for rag-and-bone ducking and diving leads towards the perilous holy grail of 'brightwire' - copper from electrical cabling in plentiful supply in the urban-rural hinterlands. Meanwhile, Kitten's encouragement of Swifty's affinity for the horses used for trade and trotting - the latter promising handsome gambling profits - strains the friendship, culminating in tragedy.

This story could easily degenerate into bog-standard miserabilism, given the crushing weight of near destitution surrounding the lads along with drug addiction, violence and hopelessness threatening to overwhelm them - where escape into the scrapyard is itself characterised by parallel dog-eat-dog cynicism infecting otherwise implacable loyalty. But the camera remains close to the main protagonists' point of view, seeing the various afflictions as a normality they are determined to transcend - for themselves and to ease the pressure on their kin. Much of the anecdotal material, set-pieces, spirit and humour on show is adapted from actual Bradford characters and events, and the lack of condescension in its skilful integration ranks alongside the best of social-realist cinema - with Mike Eley's atmospheric photography blurring the boundaries of industrial wasteland encroached on by flora and fauna, lyrically evoking the organic energy and potency left to rot at the margins of sterile, disinterested modern society.

Dubbed by Barnard "a retelling of a fairytale based on fact", The Selfish Giant was inspired by Oscar Wilde's children's parable of the same name which she read to her young children - whereas little remains of his Christian sentimentality beyond Kitten's unlikely self-sacrifice at the end which facilitates Arbor's agonised coming-of-age redemption. Instead, the genuinely mythic resonance of the film is decidedly contemporary, stemming from the director's fury at the fashionable demonisation and criminalisation of the lower-classes. Its overarching metaphor instantiates the infrastructure of power in the form of huge imperious pylons delivering voltage ('potential difference') across and through the landscapes and lives of growing numbers of citizens cut off from access to its benefits. Thus a very specific and concrete tale of youthful deprivation and defiance hints at the political and emotional economy of physical and psychological scrap, questioning the significance of antisocial behaviour, social exclusion and surplus population in a devastating indictment of neoliberal values.

* see 'Clio Barnard's Talking Heads', by Omar El-Khairy, in Mute magazine 3 (1), 2011 (www.metamute.org).
The Selfish Giant is out now on DVD.

For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
Freedom magazine, 2003-2013
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk