‘The Selfish Giant’ shares its title with an Oscar Wilde children’s tale, but this unflinching, moving story of two Bradford boys who steal copper, illegally race ponies and flirt worryingly with danger all day long is rooted in a very real, modern Britain. It unfolds in a world of rundown housing estates backing on to open fields punctuated by cooling towers and electricity pylons. But for all its stark realism, it has a touch of myth to it too, and it’s lyrically shot.
It’s fronted by two scrappy teens, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). They’re both trying to force an entry into the adult world, kicking and screaming: Arbor is younger but louder and quicker to lash out; Swifty is older, more reserved. Both come from tough homes and school has given up on them. A scrap dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder), exploits their energy and naivety by buying stolen goods from them. You know it could end badly.
‘The Selfish Giant’ feels a bit like one of those doomy 1970s and ’80s public information films, but one filmed by Ken Loach and scripted by a poet not a bureaucrat. The Loach nod is obvious; this is ‘Kes’ revisited in a post-Thatcher northern England. That film looked at a boy and a bird; here it’s two boys and a pony. There’s a similar contrasting of rural beauty and man-made ugliness.
Loach, too, has always been great with young actors, and Chapman and Thomas are both revelations, raw and compelling. It’s not a pretty story, but its warmth lies in its fondness – love, even – for the two boys at its heart.