A near-tangible slick of midsummer sweat sits heavily atop each scene in Andrew Cividino’s diverting debut feature, “Sleeping Giant,” lending welcome sensual specificity to coming-of-age material that otherwise paddles in familiar waters. Recalling such recent U.S. independents as “The Kings of Summer” and “Hide Your Smiling Faces” in its examination of three teenage boys working through their masculine insecurities over the course of a muggy Lake Superior vacation, this iridescently shot expansion of Cividino’s award-winning 2014 short of the same title signposts its increasingly downbeat narrative too liberally to surprise, though a humid hint of homoerotic perspective distinguishes it from others in its amply populated genre. Not especially teen-targeted, “Sleeping Giant” isn’t the stuff of distributors’ dreams, though it’ll serve its confident helmer well as a festival-circuit calling card.
“YOLO,” sneers one of the three adolescent boys at the center of Cividino’s film in the opening scene, firmly cementing the film’s generational identity for future time-capsule use — the acronym, in case it needs spelling out, is contemporary teen slang for “you only live once.” It’s also the first instance of pointed foreshadowing in the film, signifying an imminent challenge to mortality before the summer is out: Unlike some youth-in-crisis films, “Sleeping Giant” benefits from genuinely high emotional stakes in the later, harsher going, even if the outcome is easy enough to anticipate.
Cividino, who keeps the story on a commendably tight leash throughout, wastes little time with extended character introductions. We encounter the boys, all in their early teens, play-fighting together on an idle scorcher of an afternoon, and their contrasting circumstances — and with those, the subtly crucial class differences they imply — emerge swiftly from there. It turns out that Adam (Jackson Martin), a sensitive, somewhat sheltered kid from an upper-middle-class family has only just met cousins Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino), and is still being sized up in the taunting, faux-macho way that boys (not to mention a fair few men) do. All three are vacationing in a snoozy lakeside resort town in Ontario — Adam with his well-to-do, would-be-hip parents, and Riley and Nate with their saltily affectionate grandmother (Rita Serino), who thinks nothing of her grandsons smoking her own cigarettes in her presence.
Adam and Riley — the more jockish and socially adept of the two cousins — bond quickly, and it’s not long before Riley is tagging along on family expeditions, clearly enjoying the material and emotional comforts missing from his own home life. Their friendship, however, only exacerbates the immediate antipathy toward Adam from Nate, an overstimulated and none-too-bright delinquent whose persistent, lewd declarations of sexual prowess make his naivete all the more transparent.
As this fractious trio hangs out through the summer, occasionally joined by Adam’s longtime friend Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher), the triangular needling between them escalates in hostility and consequentiality. Keen to take the richer boy’s seemingly perfect family down a notch, Nate passes along talk of Adam’s dad’s infidelity; meanwhile, the platonic nature of Adam and Taylor’s relationship becomes a source of ruthless teasing. Boys will be boys, yes, but Cividino doesn’t romanticize them: They can be pretty toxic, too.
Adam bears such bullying with a mild, impassive mien. He’s the least expressive of the three, though his reserved, observational perspective is the one most often shared by the film. The question of his nascent sexual identity is never openly addressed, though some may perceive nervous queer undertones to his gaze: If nothing else, his instant, defensive attachment to Riley seems a chaste kind of crush. Cividino depicts the tricky male power games between the boys with tact and compassionate impartiality: Adam may be the “good boy” of the group, but he’s not averse to a little brattiness. All three young actors excel, convincingly negotiating their characters’ impetuous mood swings and surges of false bravado; newcomers Moffett and Serino return from the film’s shorter incarnation, while Martin makes a delicate impression in the feature’s most quietly complex role.
Craftsmanship across the board is punchily accomplished, with the hot primary colors and sharp, symmetrical framing of James Klopko’s lensing giving “Sleeping Giant” a little more snap than other films of its ilk; the same goes for Chris Thornborrow and Bruce Peninsula’s heightened, often brashly percussive score. The title, incidentally, refers to a vertiginous seaside cliff that sounds a silent alarm early in proceedings; it’s the most spectacular and forbidding of the film’s lush, febrile locations.