Young Arbor (Conner Chapman) is best friends with Swifty (Shaun Thomas), but then he doesn't have any other friends as most people find him difficult to put up with. He is on medication for his mental issues, which might have helped him if his junkie brother didn't insist on selling it to fund his drugs habit, so he is left with a mother (Rebecca Manley) trying to do her best for her younger son with very little thanks or even the feeling that anybody is listening to her. Arbor is disruptive in school, but he does like to go out with Swifty on a horse which they borrow from local scrap dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder); so it is one fateful night they spot a couple of men stealing cables...
Director Clio Barnard's follow-up to her acclaimed and innovative protrayal of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar was this adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fairy tale, though not perhaps one the great writer would have recognised immediately. Instead she took the themes of what she described as "the wounds of love" and applied them to a story of a couple of troubled boys, played by two locals, Barnard still conscious of the connection she had made to the region with her previous film. Some criticised her gloomy portrayal of working class life, seeming without hope for the two protagonists who not only don't see a way out of their lives, with no opportunities to gather, but were reluctant to even try.
But this was less about an accurate portrayal of a specific strata of society as it was a look at the way masculinity would tend towards the corrupt, and asking the question whether there was anything redeemable about those without the gumption to pull themselves out of the temptations of crime and take the road of self improvement less travelled, according to this anyway. Therefore if you were going to take offence to Barnard's stylings then a better bet was to take on her view of males as at heart deeply flawed human beings who would flout the law when it suited them, not that Arbor and Swifty were of an age to really make proper decisions about their morality at that point, but we could recognise from the men around them where they could end up.
One of those men is Kitten, who thinks nothing of taking stolen scrap metal if it means he can make a profit. He has two things which attract the two boys, one, he has access to horses which Swifty especially is very happy to be around, and two, he has a supply of money which they can tap into by providing him with the scrap, and if that has been pilfered why worry? They're getting their cash anyway. For a long stretch The Selfish Giant seems dangerously close to endorsing this life of crime since Barnard is reserved about judging the two kids, preferring to build up their environment to allow us to better understand them, yet don't go thinking these were a couple of Hollywood cute tearaways, as both actors never tried to play up to the audience's sympathies.
And to that end were very effective, well directed by Barnard, though after a while it begins to look as if the women in the story were incidental, bizarrely as if she is neglecting them other than to make them the useless commentators on the males' multiple foibles. However, she was building up to an incident which was obvious in retrospect when Kitten employs the boys to steal for him, but thanks to skilled handling remained a shock to the system when it occurred. From what had happened before you may have been taking a dispassionate view, not wishing to endorse or encourage the actvities we have been witnessing, but when it all goes wrong for them it's unexpectedly moving. Here is where the women become important, not only as a shoulder to cry on but more than that, as support and a way to cope with the issues that would be impossible to reckon with if they were not there. If you were unconvinced by the gender politics before then you may well be considering Barnard and her team, many of them women, had a point after that. Music by Harry Escott.