Metallic blues and grays dominate the color palette of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, the British writer-director’s fictional follow-up to her documentary The Arbor. It takes place in the same Yorkshire borough as that earlier film, and it’s similarly sympathetic yet clear-eyed in its examination of lumpenprole life at the precarious margins of postindustrial England. When hyperactive and scrappy Arbor (Conner Chapman) is expelled from school, he takes his exile in stride by wandering the streets and collecting scrap metal, dragging along his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), a gentler soul who has a way with the horses that haul the carts. Arbor’s entrepreneurship puts them on the radar of scrapyard owner Kitten (Sean Gilder), who’s introduced to us as an ax-wielding curmudgeon silhouetted by the early dawn, a giant king in this rag-and-bone world.
The film is in the social-realist mold, showing us the details of Arbor and Swifty’s fractured families, their discomfiture in the antiseptic school system, and the process of scavenging junk to add to the mountains of twisted metal lying behind Kitten’s gates. They collect pots and pans and smashed tricycles, but Arbor dreams of one big score: the “bright metal” copper wire in the core of high-tension power lines. Swifty cares less for the payout, but is enamored with the chance to ride one of Kitten’s trotting horses in a race; nevertheless, their bond is the key to the entire film. Barnard coaxes genuine performances out of her young leads; she’s attentive to their speech, to the melody of their dialect and the rhythm of their back-and-forths. The sentiments shared by the two are always clear, even when the dialogue isn’t.
That ear for language is paired with an eye for the landscape, and the film finds beauty even in such a seemingly dreary, economically depressed community. Often we return to a stretch of field that’s picturesque to the point of abstract timelessness, where horses graze under the shadow of nuclear cooling towers—or at least, there would be a shadow if the sun could punch through the thick cloud cover that casts this film in perpetual twilight. Against this backdrop, we’re witness to revelations and moral dilemmas and life-changing instants as the power lines drone continuously around Arbor and Swifty.
It’s a tale of refuse, both in terms of the collected junk and those doing the collecting on the edges of a society that no longer has use for them. The train tracks and power lines still run out here, but at least to the kids whom the system deems have no future, at the present such things are worth more broken and scrapped in piles on horse-drawn carts, while the rest of the world drives past. Barnard teases out those thematic parallels gently, with a nuance that allows us to contemplate such meaning without being overly didactic about the realities of life in this place. She provides a window into the struggles and tragedies, both great and small, which lie just outside our view.