By: Dan Grant
Our resident film expert is, of course, Daniel Reynolds. He immersed himself in TIFF this year and wrote about it here, here and here. And here, too. I saw just one film at the festival this year, but it really struck me on a personal level. That film was Canadian director Andrew Cividino’s feature debut, Sleeping Giant.
The first thing that most will mention about this film is that the cinematography is strikingly beautiful. It’s set in Northern Ontario, and everything from the rugged cliffs to the glistening lakes, to the small town fish shop and general store feel authentic. That’s because they are, as the entire film was shot on location, on the shores of Lake Superior.
A brief mention of Superior is the only help we get in distinguishing the time and place of the film. From the opening scene where three boys hang out and wrestle on a sandy beach, we’re dropped into this environment with little explanation as to why we’re there. The story is already in progress. We don’t hear anything about time except that it’s summer. We don’t see a calendar, or to my recollection, a cell phone. Nobody sees a movie or watches TV. It feels like we’re supposed to believe this could have happened yesterday or it could have happened 20 years ago.
It’s quickly clear that two of the three boys know each other well and that the third is an outsider, and an awkward one at that. We don’t know how they met, except that they’re staying on the same lake. It’s equally clear that one boy accepts and even likes the new boy, while the other seems like the type who doesn’t accept or like anything at all. There is tension from the first.
The phrase ‘slice of life’ is generally overused as a descriptor. Just about anything can be a slice of life, because there are so many people in this world living so many different lives; unless you’re going to the fantastical or supernatural, a slice of life is an impossibly broad term that can be applied almost anywhere. But from the beginning, that’s what this film feels like. Cividino used two unknown, local actors (Nick Serino and Reece Moffett) to play the cousins Nate and Riley, and a Toronto actor (Jackson Martin) to play the third boy, Adam. You can feel the differences not just in the writing and the characters but in the physicality and constant dialogue between the three. These boys feel different because they are different. They aren’t playing at it.
That’s where the film captures magic. Three unique boys and their interactions during one summer at the lake, doing the fun, stupid and sometimes dangerous things that teenage boys do. Nate and Riley appear to be from a lower middle class background, staying with their grandmother in a small cabin; while Adam’s family is affluent, living in a beautiful cottage. Riley is the stronger, more confident cousin, the one who appears interested in being friends with Adam and accepts him. Nate is the motormouth shit disturber, a friend that everyone who was ever a teenage boy had, and remembers with mixed feelings. He never lets anything go, never leaves anything unsaid and seemingly has no filter. He punishes Adam right away, seemingly just for existing. Adam is cut from a different cloth than the other two; he’s quiet and inexperienced compared to them, but he doesn’t lack confidence. He never does anything he doesn’t want to do, never rises to Nate’s bullshit, which only serves to push Nate further and further into antagonism. This creates problems not only between Nate and Adam but between Nate and Riley, too.
After the screening, most of the cast appeared for a Q & A. Cividino and Serino fielded a question about the authenticity of the dialogue between the boys, and revealed that most of their scenes were improvised. They would have signposts about where a scene needed to go, but the boys had free reign to tell Cividino when anything felt forced or staid and were allowed to add their own insights at any time. Four minute scenes began as 20 minute monoliths, with the best portions selected during editing. The result is what feels like a home movie, in the best way possible. The boys speak to one another with a constant crude bravado, interspersed with defensiveness. They are in constant competition, never content. I saw the movie with a friend, a woman. She recognized the flavour of some of the dialogue, remembered it from high school, but not all of it. She asked me if boys really spoke that way to each other, if they were so unforgiving and harsh. I laughed. ‘Yes’ I said. ‘Pretty much constantly’.
The dialogue provides the film with comedy, but it also serves to paint the beautiful landscape of Northern Ontario with the individual pain each boy feels. Without spoilers, one boy wants things to change but doesn’t know how to achieve that change. Another wants things to stay the same and can’t bear to see them slip away. And the last boy feels so displaced that he has no idea what he wants. Canadian band Bruce Peninsula provide a stirring score that Cividino applies with aplomb. It helps him transform the scenery from beautiful to ominous to threatening as the story progresses.
Wants and needs. Fear and anger. Love and hate. All set in a wild paradise, a place that feels like it’s been there forever and will be there long after you’re gone. A place that feels familiar, but alien at the same time.
Sleeping Giant builds layer upon layer of emotional tension and soon after the climax, we’re ripped out of the environment that we were dropped into. The beginning and end of the film feel like the ragged edges of a torn photograph. ‘You only get to see this much’ Cividino tells us. We’re left thrumming, wondering what the hell just happened and how we got here.
It feels kind of like growing up.