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Originally published Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 3:08 PM

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‘The Selfish Giant’: A world where children grow up too fast

A 3-star review of “The Selfish Giant,” a tragic drama depicting a world inhospitable to children.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

‘The Selfish Giant,’ with Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne, Ian Burfield, Steve Evets, Siobhan Finneran. Written and directed by Clio Barnard. 91 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains frequent strong language). Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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Clio Barnard’s tragic drama “The Selfish Giant” bears little resemblance to the gentle Oscar Wilde fairy tale from which it takes its name — except, perhaps, in its depiction of a world inhospitable to children. Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are two boys in their very early teens, living on a housing estate in a depressed central England town. Bored and restless, they begin collecting metal for a local scrapdealer, an imposing scofflaw incongruously known as Kitten (Sean Gilder). Though this selfish giant is happy to exploit their eagerness, he doesn’t much care that they’re just kids; Arbor and Swifty are thrilled to enter his world, but it’s soon clear that it will be difficult for them to exit safely.

Though not really a film for children — Arbor and Swifty’s vocabulary is colorfully profane, their world dark, and the characters’ accents so often impenetrable that English subtitles are provided (a rarity for an English film) — “The Selfish Giant” does have the quality of a fable. Barnard’s camera lingers on the power silos looming in the smog, the dirt on the door frames, the chilly mud of the streets; there’s nothing welcoming here, particularly for children. Arbor and Swifty, growing up too fast, are small adults, shocking their ineffectual parents. “He can still get it inside, Mum,” Arbor tells his mother, who’s anguishing over whether to report her older son to the police to get him off drugs. “How do you know that?” she asks. “Everyone knows that,” says Arbor coolly.

Ultimately, it’s a sad, tough sit — but worth seeing for its gritty honesty and strong cast. (Most are little-known in this country, but watch for “Downton Abbey’s” Siobhan Finneran, aka Miss O’Brien, as Swifty’s sad-eyed mum.) In particular, Chapman’s performance as Arbor is remarkable; he’s not always convincing with his dialogue, but you can’t take your eyes off him. This boy, jittery as a drop in a hot frying pan, is practically bursting out of his skin; at one point, he climbs a pole and hangs there, for no reason but because he can. You find yourself wishing, desperately, that there’s someplace else for Arbor; that this wild, coltish energy might be harnessed in a way that brought him hope.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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