Secrets and lies disrupt a superficially idyllic summer holiday for three teenage boys in Canadian director Andrew Cividino’s debut feature Sleeping Giant, an expansion of his prize-winning short of the same name. Set in a heat-hazed resort town on the Ontario shores of Lake Superior, this compelling if somewhat schematically written drama benefits from a strong sense of place, well-directed performances from its young ensemble, and a good ear for the patter of contemporary teen-speak. Given the lack of big name cast members and the way that films about kids, but not obviously for kids, are always a hard sell, distribution prospects look less than gigantic outside Canada, but further festivals are likely to show interest in the movie after its Critics’ Week premier.
The sun-flare-dappled opening demonstrates an admirable economy from the off by introducing the three main characters — all about 14 or 15 years old — as a pre-formed unit, although it later becomes clear that they’ve only just met each other. Ginger-haired, delicate-featured Adam (Jackson Martin) is a shy boy from a relatively affluent family who has been coming to the lakeside town every year since he was a kid. Adam hangs back, curious but cautious, as slightly younger but more confident Nate (Nick Serino) banters with his first cousin Riley (Reece Moffett), about failing at school. Clearly, the cousins are from rougher, less privileged backgrounds. Soon, the horseplay by the shore turns into more aggressive wrestling, foreshadowing the competitive tests of masculinity to come, the stakes rising by the incremental degrees as the film proceeds.
Adam’s father (David Disher), who clearly fancies himself one of those cool dads, later invites Riley to come over for supper with Adam and his mom, an act of hospitality that raises disdain from the ever-sarcastic Nate. Allusions to angry or even ominously absent parents suggest neither of the cousins are particularly happy at home, which would explain why they’re on vacation with their grandma, who’s more concerned about their cussing than the fact that they openly cadge cigarettes off her.
But Adam’s family is not the embodiment of contented familial bliss that they seem. Riley accidentally sees the father hooking up with a woman who runs the local fish-shop and tells Adam about it. He reacts by displaying increasingly surly behavior towards his dad, and getting deeper into delinquent mischief with the cousins. A ready supply of marijuana comes courtesy from the local dealer, a dropout in his twenties who spends all day getting high and playing computer games. (“Nice crib!” exclaims Nate in gormless admiration of the dealer’s seedy mobile home.)
The title refers to an uninhabited island with a fearsome 100-foot cliff that the boys explore first with Adam’s father and then later with the dealer, who brags that he’s one of only two people to have ever jumped off the cliff. It’s no stretch to guess where this heavy-handed foreshadowing will lead. However, although the script is sometimes a little too on-the-nose in its delivery of the requisite, development-money-approved dramatic beats, Cividino’s loose, free-flow rhythm disguises the joins effortlessly, and semi-improvised sounding verbal jousting between the boys achieves an impressive naturalism. Reportedly neither Moffett nor Serino had ever done any acting before becoming involved in the project, and that inexperience shows through somewhat in the more heightened dramatic moments. And yet, paradoxically, their slight stiffness also adds a degree of credibility. Teenage boys are often like clumsy actors, trying on “characters” (the tough guy, the cool mystery man) as they go along, endearingly unaware how easy it is to see through their acts.
What’s particularly admirable here is the way the cast and filmmakers illuminate not just the wit and charm of young men, but also the callow cruelty of youth, driven by a killer combination of naïve idealism, solipsism, poor self-esteem and raging hormones. Aptly chosen locations and production design collaborate effectively to evoke the scuzzy glamor of resort-town game arcades and golf courses, while Chris Thornborrow and Bruce Peninsula’s elegiac score casts a spell.
Production company: A Film Forge Productions in association with Hawkeye Pictures, Seville Intl. presentation
Cast: Jackson Martin, Reece Moffett, Nick Serino, David Disher, Erika Brodzky, Rita Serino, Katelyn McKerracher, Kyle Bertrand, Lorraine Philp
Screenwriter:Andrew Cividino, Aaron Yeger, Blain Watters, based on a story by Cividino
Producers: Andrew Cividino, Karen Harnisch, Marc Swenker, Aaron Yeger, James Vandewater
Executive producer: Aeschylus Poulos
Directors of photography: James Klopko
Editor: James Vandewater
Production designer: Erika Lobko
Composer: Chris Thornborrow, Bruce Peninsula
Casting: J. Adam Brown
Sales: Seville Intl.
No rating, 90 minutes