Adolescence is an awkward and difficult time. Most often we underestimate what teenagers are going through because we are more than happy to forget our own struggles at that age.
Everyone faces different challenges growing up. The Canadian production ‘Giant Little Ones’ tries to bring this to the fore. It depicts a tumultuous period in a boy’s life as he tries to reconcile his emotions, feelings and experiences in the face of alienation and isolation.
The confident, fluid camera work (by cinematographer Guy Godfree), fast-paced editing (by Sandy Pereira) and tight script (written by Keith Behrman) enacted by talented actors help establish the characters and themes early on. The characters feel real, lived in, with their own history, regrets, desires and demons.
The film sets up the themes it is trying to defy early on, through the leads played by Josh Wiggins and Darren Mann. Their respective characters Franky and Ballas are alluded to as childhood friends and longtime partners in crime. They cycle around the lush green, well-kempt suburbs of their neighbourhood. They engage in roughhousing, brag about their sexual virility, encourage each other in their sexual endeavours and are on the swim team.
Toxic masculinity takes centre stage in a locker room incident of bullying an out gay character (played by Carson MacCormac) and its eventual fallout.
The inciting incident that tears Franky and Ballas apart happens quite early on. It plays out in the dark, in between the sheets. You can barely piece together what is going on before it’s over.
It can be argued that the depiction is intentionally kept vague to fuel speculation as to what actually happened— we are left questioning who we are supposed to believe. But all that quickly washes away, once a character states what she chooses to believe.
From then on the story delves into overcoming bullying, ostracisation and depression as Franky reconnects with Natasha, Ballas’s sister, complicating matters further. Natasha is herself shunted to the sidelines by her peers and has retreated from social life, after an unspecified incident involving some form of sexual violence. (It is commendable how the film manages to circumvent retelling the horrific details while depicting the impact and devastation wreaked by the incident.)
Director Keith Behrman has said the inspiration for the film came from an incidence of teen suicide. However, instead of depicting a tragedy he wanted to propagate a positive message.
In a rare delicate scene, Natasha and Franky grow closer as they have a frank conversation about consent, expectations, mutual understanding and sex.
There is a case to be made that the film’s exploration of homosexuality does not go far enough. It is also obvious that the film is much more at ease depicting heterosexual intimacy.
In this day and age, when sexual fluidity is considered natural, the film plays coy in its execution, even though on paper the script has a lot to say on the subject.
What the film does tackle well is the messiness of life, how confusing a sexual encounter and its implications can be at such a young age and the societal pressure of choosing your sexuality and sticking to it, when in reality it can be a much more fluid and freeing experience.
The shining moment of clarity in the film arrives when Franky reconnects with his estranged father in a heart-to-heart conversation. Kyle MacLachlan as the father delivers a delicate performance as the caring, worried, proud dad.
The father and son bond over red wine and a blue blazer, as they attempt to unspool the mysteries of sex, love, happiness and life. That it all can be more messy and complicated than what romance, fairytales and movies depict them to be.
There is something in here about internalised homophobia in Ballas’s character. The movie explores society’s compulsion about categorising and boxing every kind of sexuality and sexual experience. However, the film squanders the opportunity to explore these subjects with nuance by playing it too safe. It feels as if the film is unsure as to which path Franky should go down.
It would be false to state that the movie tackles LGBT themes head-on. That subject takes a back seat in the latter half of the movie.
Ballas is reduced to a one-dimensional bully who never gets to struggle with his confused sexuality and contend with himself as well as the choices he makes.
The bold and out character of Mouse (portrayed by Niamh Wilson) is relegated to tertiary status, only showing up to provide comic relief along with some supportive words of encouragement and courage to Franky.
Despite its positive portrayal of consent, love, shifting definitions of sexuality and parenting the movie feels like it bites off more than it can chew. The film struggles to find the delicate balance it needs.
The ending feels like it tries to reach for some cathartic pay-off with mixed results. In the end, the film is well worth the watch for its attempts at untangling adolescence, life’s fluid mysteries and societal mores.