Arbor (Conner Chapman) is a young boy growing up in the North of England without a purpose, spending his days bunking off school with his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Their dealings in horse-racing, scrap metal and general mischief quickly spiral out of control until something has to give.
Director Clio Barnard’s upbringing in Yorkshire shines through here. The atmosphere of the boys’ sleepy Northern town is brilliantly sour and a very grim picture of the area is painted in front of our eyes. Arbor’s dark adventure takes place in a location that is familiar but given an almost alien quality, with music seldom being used and featuring occasional shots of empty foggy fields. Mike Eley’s cinematography is part of the draw here; harsh images of harsh people call to mind Michael Mann’s ultra-realistic shots in Collateral and Heat.
The cast is comprised of mostly unknown actors, and the performances are universally excellent. The two central protagonists feel like the misguided, uneducated and, crucially, misunderstood children that we have seen in the media countless times. A couple of familiar faces appear in strong supporting roles, including Ralph Ineson as a callous scrapyard worker. Barnard’s Northern roots shine through again in the writing, which feels effortless though with occasional dull notes.
However, the plot is quite aimless and meanders between several, albeit very good, set pieces. In the down time one can appreciate the film’s aesthetics but boredom may well set in. One of the aforementioned set pieces is a modern chariot race; boys being pulled by horses as cars honk their encouragement. It’s a bizarre break from the plot but it is certainly exhilarating, evoking memories of Ben Hur with men’s primal bellowing and animals desperately wheezing.
Comedy does pop up occasionally and is handled fairly well, but feels slightly out of place and isn’t integrated as it was in Shane Meadows’s excellent This is England. Perhaps the film is strongest at its darkest points, and Arbor’s punishment for putting a scrapyard boss out of work immediately springs to mind. It feels like something out of Goodfellas but is even more frightening in somewhere so close to home.
Barnard demonstrates true potential and The Selfish Giant is at times both shocking and moving, but a disjointed plot mars the experience somewhat.