British filmmaker Clio Barnard burst onto the scene a couple of years ago with a first feature so original that it was nearly impossible to imagine what she might do next. The Arbor was technically a documentary about playwright Andrea Dunbar, but Barnard, expanding on a concept she’d developed for the theater, had actors lip-sync to audio recordings of her interview subjects, creating a cognitive dissonance that perfectly reflected the intersection of Dunbar’s work and her personal life. Additional films in that singular mode seemed unlikely, and her follow-up, The Selfish Giant, turns out to be a conventional kitchen-sink drama very much in the mold of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows. That’s by no means a bad thing, however, since Barnard proves just as skilled at handling child actors as she is at straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. Had The Arbor never existed, this would qualify as a promising debut.
Very loosely based on the children’s story of the same title by Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant unfolds in Bradford, England (hometown to both Barnard and Dunbar), where two teenage boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), regularly skip school to engage in all manner of mischief. Happening upon some locals who collect and sell scrap metal, they start “scrapping” themselves, competing for the attention of the town’s unscrupulous scrap dealer, a huge man improbably called Kitten (Sean Gilder). Kitten initially finds these kids a nuisance, but eventually agrees to give them some work, if only to reward Arbor’s brash enthusiasm. Once an accident provokes Kitten’s ire, however, Arbor finds himself playing second fiddle to his best friend, and his attempts to get back in the selfish giant’s good graces push him to scrapping jobs that cross the line from merely larcenous into dangerous.
Given her background in documentaries, it’s not surprising that Barnard seems interested in the story mostly as an excuse to observe these colorful individuals in this impoverished milieu, which she somehow depicts as both perpetually overcast and vibrant. Patiently accumulating vivid details, she executes a slow boil that culminates in tragedy, yet the movie avoids feeling like a dose of British miserabilism, if only because everybody on-screen (including a host of supporting characters with nicknames like Price Drop) seems so aggressively alive. And her work with her two young leads is exemplary—Chapman, in particular, expresses depths of regret so profound that he becomes almost physically painful to watch. That The Selfish Giant feels familiar rather than groundbreaking makes it seem to some degree a step back for its talented director, but she’s avoided the sophomore jinx with aplomb.