Oscar Wilde is uncharacteristically muffled in “The Selfish Giant,” an abstruse contempo interpretation of Wilde’s Christian fairy tale, but writer-helmer Clio Barnard’s voice comes through loud and clear. A jaggedly moving study of a feral adolescent (astonishing newcomer Conner Chapman) on a rough journey to grace, the pic is ostensibly more conventional than Barnard’s acclaimed hybrid-doc debut, “The Arbor,” but exhibits stunning formal progress nonetheless. Though her tender-tough worldview arguably hews closer to that of Shane Meadows, this demanding but eminently distributable art film should elevate Barnard to the bracket of streetwise femme compatriots Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay.
Fans of the barely classifiable “The Arbor,” a biopic of working-class Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar that inventively fused firsthand testimony with lipsynched performance, may be initially disappointed that Barnard has chosen a more straightforward narrative path for her sophomore effort. However, after a few opening scenes that suggest the director might follow Ken Loach’s bleak social-realism handbook to the letter, the film’s singularities blossom as unexpectedly as the trees in Wilde’s winter-bound garden — not least in the atmospheric depiction of the film’s own urban milieu.
Barnard’s hometown of Bradford is once more the setting here, though the vision is very different this time. Swaddled in mist and dewy, untamed undergrowth, and crisscrossed by the horse-drawn carts of the region’s settled travelers, the town’s post-industrial decay takes on a vividly mythic quality befitting a modern fable: In addition to its characters’ individual losses, “The Selfish Giant” seems to solemnly observe an entire community being slowly consumed by the earth beneath its collective feet.
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Against this unopposed disintegration, the aggressive self-reliance of young Arbor (Chapman, his character’s name a neat nod to both Wilde’s story and Barnard’s debut) seems positively necessary, however obnoxious. A whip-smart blighter who would eat the lunch of the Dardennes’ comparable protag in “The Kid With a Bike,” he has effectively defeated his parents and teachers alike, but enjoys an odd equality with his gentler, put-upon best friend, Swifty (Shaun Thomas). When Arbor’s school finally expels him for good, he resolves to provide for himself by illegally collecting scrap metal and copper cabling for shady local dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder) — a dangerous but widespread occupation in this corner of self-described “pikey” society.
For the film’s purposes, the ruthless, exploitative Kitten is the Selfish Giant of the title, though you could be forgiven for thinking it’s Arbor himself. Cocky and eager to impress, Arbor ropes his friend into his scheme, only to seethe with destructive jealousy when Kitten takes a greater shine to the sweeter-natured, horse-whispering Swifty. Given the hazardous nature of the boys’ assumed livelihood, the film’s turn toward the tragic is hardly untelegraphed, but its emotional blows still land with crushing precision.
Though Barnard and ace casting director Amy Hubbard clearly have a keen eye for screen presence, Chapman’s galvanizing performance is not just a feat of lightning-in-a-bottle fortune. Only 12 years old at the time of filming (a year younger than Arbor himself), the diminutive leading man has a camera-controlling physical swagger, with a dry, peppery wit to his line delivery that draws him instantly level with any adult performer in a scene. Less outwardly commanding but possessed of a preternaturally accepting empathy that makes Swifty the film’s quiet moral center, 15-year-old Thomas is no less impressive a discovery.
There’s nothing scrappy, meanwhile, about the filmmaking on display here. Where “The Arbor,” for all its innovation in other departments, retained a certain televisual quality to its construction, “The Selfish Giant” is boldly, broodingly cinematic. Backed by an effectively spare score from Harry Escott that sometimes recalls his work on Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” d.p. Mike Eley’s compositions carefully play the dark, rolling landscape against the squat impositions of town planners. The relentless Yorkshire weather, meanwhile, is almost palpable in Barnard’s chosen palette of stormy blues and mossy greens.