“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” says the narrator at the end of “Stand By Me,” a film that is having a zeitgeist blip here in Cannes, referenced in “The Lobster” and mentioned by the Critics’ Week presenter who introduced Canadian director Andrew Cividino‘s first film, “Sleeping Giant.” But the answer to that rhetorical question here might be “and would you want to?” because while Rob Reiner‘s essential coming of age story is a definite touchpoint for Cividino’s immaculately observed, deeply felt debut, it is largely by counterpoint. “Sleeping Giant” is a story of friendships quickly made and even more quickly broken, of jealousy, confusion, betrayal, and peer pressure so barometrically oppressive three young men buckle under its weight. It is the anti-“Stand By Me.”
Partly this comes from the age and era of the protagonists, here around 15 and children of the online generation, trading faux-worldly put-downs in a violent, wannabe grown-up lingo of sexual degradation and casual bigotry. There is something heartbreaking and truthful, for these modern times, in watching children parrot the sexist, homophobic slurs they’ve picked up long before they’ve even glancingly experienced any of the acts or attitudes they suggest. In fact the language used throughout “Sleeping Giant” feels lived-in and authentic: from the would-be cool dad who sneaks his son his first beer and indicates how “down with the kids” he is by twice referencing the Darwin Awards and trying on the word “chillaxing” for size, to the rotten apple Nate, who, amid all his casual profanity, occasionally lashes out at those who “anger” him with vicious, furious, potentially ruinous truths, “because it’s fun.”
Adam (Jackson Martin) is a sweet-faced and quiet 15-year-old, the well-mannered child of parents wealthy enough to have recently bought the holiday home they previously rented year-on-year. He befriends Riley (Reese Moffett), a tall, gangly, toothy boy of his own age who is a first timer in the area and seems more streetwise than Adam, having been shipped up here to spend the summer with his grandmother. But friendship with Riley comes at the cost of interaction with his sneering cousin Nate (Nick Serino) who is also staying with Grandma. Nate’s volatile, shit-stirring nature is exacerbated by his jealousy at Riley and Adam’s closeness, which itself comes under strain when Riley starts doing a line with Taylor, the girl Adam has a crush on, and when Adam discovers that his laid-back cool dad father is having an affair with the owner of a local fish shop.
Embedded into its environment with a deep sense of place (Cividino himself used to holiday in the region as a boy), DP James Klopko‘s excellent cinematography flatters the landscapes, lakescapes, and forests of Northern Ontario. And the beats of that fabled “last summer of childhood,” while familiar, are well achieved — amid the gathering darkness, there are also moments that recall the simple joy of being young and on endless holiday. The boys go for walks, thrashing through the woods with sticks, they jump off rocks into the water, wrestle on the beach, play board games, and bounce about on the trampoline against the blue sky. Where these scenes of childlike pleasure differ from other films of this ilk is in how abruptly they often pivot from light to dark: the wrestling scene ends with the bullied Adam bashing his head off a stone; an idle beachside walk reveals a dead seagull whose carcass Nate and Riley pointlessly eviscerate; and the board game scene is where the full extent of Nate’s bilious, toxic bitterness is revealed, to everyone’s shock. (To be fair, the board game is “Settlers of Catan,” which does make people crazy).
Added to the usual hormonal stew are understated but unmistakable notes of homoeroticism, rendered sinister for being confused, diffuse, and tangled up with other hormonal feelings of conflict, competition, and envy. This evocation of the all-out passion that can run hot through early friendships is something we often see in films dealing with the teenage female experience (“Heavenly Creatures,” “The Virgin Suicides,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock“), but applied to these boys, it gives “Sleeping Giant” one of its most unusual elements. It all ultimately adds to the sense that what we’re watching, even while it’s happening, is all the “before” part of a much longer story, an atmosphere not quite of dread but of heavy, pregnant possibility, like the hothouse roil of the air that precedes a storm. Change is approaching and it’s not clear whether it will be for the better or worse, only that it will be irrevocable.
There is skill exceeding his debut status in Cividino’s meticulous approach, and he has a particular flair for a witty edit and the sparing use of slow motion. The performances, especially from the three boys, are so naturalistic it feels like we’re eavesdropping, though we could wish the women, especially the cipher mother, were better drawn. The soundtrack, too, from Chris Thornborrow and Bruce Peninsula, is a rumbly, percussive, evocative pleasure — all this fine craft conspires to deliver a film that is subtly differentiated within its overpopulated genre. Perhaps most impressive is how, despite the nostalgia inherent in this kind of endeavor, “Sleeping Giant” never sentimentalizes its story, and never compromises on the essentially bleak idea that you can be transformed from a carefree child shading your eyes from the glare of a huge, wide future to a scarred and haunted young adult in a single moment. Humans do not always mature gradually, Cividino suggests. Instead, with no reference to the child one was before, an adult personality, complete with complexes, neuroses, and a shattering loss of innocence about who you really are and just how little the world cares, can be forged wholly in the crucible of one dark, sunlit summer. [B+]