The Selfish Giant (2013)
Written & Directed by Clio Barnard
In a rundown northern England city, young teenagers Arbor and Swifty consistently find ways to get trouble whether it’s getting into fights at school or cursing out a parent. They cross a new line when they start stealing copper wire from local utilities and sell it to scrap dealer Kitten. Swifty finds himself drawn to the horses and Kitten owns and the scrap dealer can see the young man’s skill with the animals. Arbor feels the distance growing between him and Swifty, with the latter moving towards a better future than the deeply emotionally trouble Arbor seems capable of having.
Dystopian futures are a fear of the privileged, and the dystopian present is a reality for the working poor. I’ve never seen this fact as more accurate than when I visit the poorest parts of rural America or watch a film from the UK centered around the northern parts of that country. The Selfish Giant does an excellent job capturing how marginalized the poor and the mentally ill are, pushed to the fringes by economic systems beyond their control or full understanding. This dystopia is a reversion into older, crueler times where the most useful skill is the ability to scavenge and fight. While the world around these boys tells them one way to live the school, a representation of “civilization” is saying they need to take their meds, tuck in their shirts, and follow the rules. However, they have no model to look at that shows them the authority’s prescribed path works.
Swifty’s brother Martin is the only older youth, and he has succumbed to a pill addiction so severely it’s almost pulled his humanity from him. Martin is in a rehab program but, much like the boys with their formal education, he doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. At one point, the older sibling jumps his little brother attempting to claw money from him while suffering in a spiral of withdrawal. Instead of turning Martin into a stereotype though, director Barnard gives him a scene near the film’s conclusion that reveals there is still empathy and love in Martin. Barnard makes sure throughout the film to balance the grimness of the reality that surrounds our protagonists yet reminded us of their innate human capacity to feel.
The inverse of Martin would be Kitten, the junk dealer, a character who, in a more cliche film, would be the gruff old man with a heart of gold. Kitten does ultimately show depth and compassion, but he is a cruel, greedy man who shows no apprehension to put children in danger. He half-heartedly discourages the two young boys from engaging in criminal acts and directly endangers their lives. In no way is Kitten ever going to become a father figure or a mentor to these characters. He is yet another byproduct of this broken system, protecting himself above all others and never taking the danger into account.
Amid this humanmade squalor, we continually return to the images of horses grazing in nearby fields. Arbor forms a bond with one of Kitten’s horses and eventually begins training to race her illegally, one of the junk dealer’s side businesses. We never get an epiphany from Swifty about the juxtaposition of the beauty of this creature against the landscape of the crumbling city. Arbor is warned by his mother to not associate with Swifty, that her son has a chance to escape what she never could. Arbor and horse parallel each other, both ultimate victims of Swifty. So we’re left with Swifty in the end, and there’s not a bright future laying in wait for him. For so many, the future is just a continuation of the present’s sufferings.