February 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: Two messed-up British kids can't save themselves in 'Selfish Giant'

Conner Chapman plays the unruly, destructive Arbor in 'The Selfish Giant.' (Detroit Film Theatre)

Dysfunction meets corruption in “The Selfish Giant,” and nothing good comes of it.

The dysfunction comes in the form of of two young boys, Arbor and Swifty, who live near a power plant in some rough corner of Britain. How rough? The language in this film is English but subtitles are still needed to cut through the accents.

Arbor (Conner Chapman) is the more messed of the two; he’s hyperactive, given to fits of rage and violence, pushy and generally obnoxious. His older brother is a drug addict, his single mother a simple wreck.

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) has a sweet side; but he’s easily led astray by the volatile Arbor, even though he is Arbor’s one anchor in the world. Swifty has a dominating and worthless father and his family is constantly broke.

One day, Arbor intervenes when the gentle Swifty is being bullied, and the boys end up being kicked out of school — Swifty for 10 days, Arbor permanently. Arbor is, of course, ecstatic.

The two begin gathering scrap metal to sell to a local junkman, Kitten (Sean Gilder). Kitten shows the boys how to strip identifying insulation off stolen copper wire, and soon the boys are trotting about town with a horse-drawn cart, picking up scraps legal and illegal, and earning real money.

That’s not enough for Arbor, though, who starts stealing from Kitten even as Swifty is bonding with the man over a mutual fondness for horses: Kitten loves racing them, Swifty likes caring for and training them.

Writer-director Clio Barnard pulls no punches in his first full-length feature. Arbor is a full-on hellion, likely broken beyond repair and his own worst enemy. He’s over-confident and even if his determination is admirable, it’s almost always pointed in the wrong direction. The film opens with him howling uncontrollably and you know that howl is never far away.

It’s also clear that Swifty, who describes himself as “thick,” will come to no good in Arbor’s company, but his allegiance is strong. And these two hanging out with a thug like Kitten is a recipe for disaster of some sort.

“The Selfish Giant” is a story of dependence, damage and desperation, told with grit and grimy frankness. It’s also a portrait of friendship born of need and emptiness, on the road to nowhere.

'The Selfish Giant'


Not rated

Running time: 91 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre


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