The Selfish Giant opens with a terrible racket. A boy, wedged in the small space beneath a bed, is banging furiously at the boards above him. Is he trapped, or imprisoned, or just working out his emotions? Whatever the case, he exhausts himself, and a soothing voice coaxes him out into view—a blond boy with a buzz cut. This is Arbor, the troubled 11- or 12-year-old hero of The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard's gritty gem of a film about innocence lost, and lost further.
Our setting is West Yorkshire, a landlocked county in the north of England where accents run so thick, they earn subtitles. When Arbor is not being roughed up by his older brother (a junkie with a taste for Arbor's Adderall), he's fighting his way through school, where kids mock his pills, his erratic emotions, his family's poverty. Still, Arbor is no sap—he gives as good as he gets, and when upper-level toughs single out his best friend for a beatdown, Arbor responds with force enough to send a kid to the hospital and get himself expelled.
The singular bond between Arbor (Conner Chapman, in a brilliant performance) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas, also terrific) is the heart of The Selfish Giant, which follows the boys—totally devoted to each other in the waning days of prepubescence—as they struggle to help themselves and their desperate families. Finding success as freelance scrap-metal collectors, they're able to pay off their parents' light bills and buy back family furniture hocked for food. But sadly, this is under the auspices of a scrap-metal mogul whose moral rot will eventually drive the boys to the film's stunning climax, a shock that traffics in Edward Gorey levels of darkness.
Drawing its title and some enigmatic inspiration from the fairy tale by Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant is a heartbreaking fable of its own making, blending the elegant childhood-memory containment of Stand by Me with the minute-by-minute grittiness of Trainspotting. Go see it.