The Selfish Giant is based on a story by Oscar Wilde. It follows two young English boys, Arbor and Swifty, as they deal with the everyday minutiae of growing up impoverished in an industrial town with little hope for a brighter future. Arbor has some serious behavioral issues. He’s on medication for his condition only when he can keep the meds out of the hands of his pill popping brother or when the school provides it for him. Swifty comes from a notoriously poor home and is ridiculed relentlessly over his family’s destitute social standing.
Both of the boys struggle in school. Arbor’s lack of focus makes him argumentative and disrespectful and Swifty’s somewhat dim nature leaves him vulnerable to being bullied and he is often encouraged to fight back by Arbor. It’s established pretty early on that although Arbor is the more aggressive and independent of the two, it’s Swifty that frequently acts as the voice of reason and the protector to Arbor. Their destructive co-dependency works and the two are pretty much inseparable.
An incident at school leads to the expulsion of the pair. Swifty exhibits some remorse and at least a general understanding that a proper education might be his only hope for a decent future, Arbor on the other hand sees it as a well deserved vacation from the nonsense of rules and formality. His grand plan involves stealing a horse and a small cart to collect scrap metal as a means to making a few bucks. A horse and cart serve as a common mode of not only transportation in this small town, but also as sport. Gambling on races is big money and lucrative if you have the fastest horse.
The boys, although lacking in book smarts, innately understand that the best way to make money is usually the most hard won. Stealing copper cable and selling it to the local junk man, a crooked and opportunistic hard-ass called ‘Kitten’, who begrudgingly pays out for unmarked and untraceable metal seems to be the most reasonable way to earn a few extra dollars. The boys almost admire this man who takes advantage of them every chance he gets. Swifty especially looks up to Kitten because he has the fastest horse and seems to need a hand in harnessing that speed. Swifty has a way with animals and shows great potential in handling the beast. Not surprisingly, Kitten takes full advantage of this.
Arbor shows some jealousy at Swifty’s newfound usefulness, but he also recognizes that Kitten is using his friend. There is some strife between the two, but they continue to collect metal in hopes of scoring big.
Arbor eventually gets fed up with Kitten cheating them out of hard earned money and decides to take his business elsewhere. He feels justified in stealing copper from him to sell at another scrap yard. Arbor’s continuing greed doesn’t sit well with his friend. Swifty is taught a hard lesson in just how far Arbor would go to make a few bucks when he crosses a line involving the life of a young foal and a possible live downed wire. Swifty’s respect for the life of the horse as a way to maybe one day escape his bleak existence is something he is not willing to compromise. His friendship with Arbor cannot withstand this blatant disrespect and he severs his relationship with him.
Arbor eventually gets caught and Kitten threatens to do him bodily harm if he doesn’t earn back what he has been stealing from him. His payment must come in the highly dangerous retrieval of some underground live cable to absolve his debt. He is given vague and general instructions on how to cut the wires with very little concern for his actual well being. Swifty is a witness to the threat as he has been training and racing Kitten’s horse. His good nature gets the best of him and he takes pity on Arbor. He accompanies his friend on his mission.
It’s apparent at this point that neither boy is bright enough to understand the potential disaster that could come of this venture. They are too young to understand that the adult who sent them on this mission was carelessly endangering them for profit. The scope of the threat simply does not register.
The events that follow are still burned into my brain. This film started off as an homage to boys being boys. Ornery, ill-behaved, impoverished and uneducated. A story of friends growing up on the wrong side of the tracks together with only the slightest glimmer of getting out, making a better life for themselves. The story of hope, but only in the most abstract and sparse sense of the word. You truly root for these boys. The potential is there. You can see it. In the end though, the only good to come of this journey is so off-handedly snuffed out like the blink of a lit candle wick that you really had no business even entertaining the idea that there might be a way out to begin with. The abruptness of it so shocking that it takes your mind a few minutes to catch up. Poof. Gone.
You are not left with complete hopelessness as this film comes to a close. There is redemption and remorse and remembrance. What it does beautifully is not let you take for granted the idea that your being shapes the lives of others. You have time, but only as much as you are given. One split second. That is all it takes. Don’t forget that…