'Giant Little Ones': Film Review | TIFF 2018

A millennial take on the coming-of-age film.

Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan star as the parents of the conflicted teen protagonist, played by Josh Wiggins, in Canadian director Keith Behrman's sophomore feature.

A Canadian teenager’s life is turned radically upside down after an unanticipated sexual encounter in Giant Little Ones, the second feature from director Keith Behrman (Flower & Garnet). Going from being a popular guy to a much-gossiped-about outcast is almost the least of the protagonist’s problems, as 17-year-old Franky has to figure out things about himself as well as his relationships with his best friend since childhood and his father, who recently left the family to go live with a man. This is a confidently shot and beautifully acted story that manages to transcend quite a few — if clearly not all — of the coming-of-age genre’s cliches by delving into how the Millennial generation experiences sexuality, ostracism and growing up and how they try to relate to their parents and peers. A streaming platform would be the most logical way to reach the film’s target audience, while slightly older viewers could be intrigued by the presence of Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan as the lead’s parents.

Franky Winter (Josh Wiggings), with a dark comb over, is best buddies with the lighter-haired Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann). Both are members of the school swim team and have high-school sweethearts, though unlike Ballas and Jess (Kiandra Madeira), Franky hasn’t yet had sex with Priscilla (Hailey Kittle). She wouldn’t mind moving things forward and tries to get Franky to commit to her sleeping over after his 17th birthday bash, for which Franky’s mom, Carly (Bello), has promised she’ll leave the house until 1 a.m.

Unlike your typical high-school movie, the party portrayed here seems like a crazy amount of fun but the youngsters make sure that everything’s spick and span, to use a decidedly unhip expression, by the time mom’s back. Behrman, who also wrote the screenplay, shows how cool Franky’s mother really is by having her make a comment about how much pizza they must have had when she sees all the trash bags outside and she's heard the clinking of empty bottles in one of them. Because the story unspools in the present, it’s impossible to tell whether Carly’s always been very laid-back or whether she’s making an extra effort because Franky seems to still be struggling with the fact that his father, Ray (MacLachlan), left the family home to go live with a male partner.

Indeed, while Carly seems to be coping alright — it’s unclear exactly how much time has passed — Franky ignores Ray’s requests to see him, despite his mother’s urge to talk to his dad. Because there is a major difference between being mad because your father broke up your family by moving out and being mad because your father went to live with a man, a little more nuance here would have helped to better understand what the starting point is for the very much unplanned journey Franky is about to go on.

The early going is the perfect showcase of Behrman’s intuitive sense of cinema in which images do a lot of the talking. A shot in which Franky’s hand twiddles with an earbud while Priscilla excitedly looks at a dog video on her phone is much more telling than him actually stating that she doesn’t really have anything to say. The camerawork from DP Guy Godfree (Maudie) is sensual throughout, with gliding widescreen shots following Franky on his bike around his suburban neighborhood as he cycles to Ballas’ house to pick him up for school, while slow-motion scenes anticipate the impact of candy-colored slurpees hurled at adversaries in late-night parking lots. Michael Brook’s score and the songs on the soundtrack complement the images by imparting a propulsive, contemporary vibe. 

About 20 minutes in, Ballas flees Franky’s bedroom after some fumbling under the covers and nothing is ever the same again. Almost immediately, rumors start spreading about Franky’s sexuality, perhaps compounded by the fact his own dad came out as gay. On the swim team, some bullies descend on a lean kid (Carson MacCormac, of the upcoming Shazam!) and everyone needs to choose sides. Not much later, Franky himself is severely beaten up and bikes are vandalized or go missing, suggesting just how violently an innocent act of love can make things spin out of control.

(Spoilers in the following two paragraphs.) In a more traditional narrative, Franky would need to accept that he’s perhaps not as straight as he thinks he is. But Giant Little Ones puts a more contemporary spin on the story. It quickly emerges that it was Ballas who initiated things before freaking out, which suggests that the subsequent rumor mill was probably set in motion by his girlfriend and himself to prove how straight he really is by casting suspicion on the other party. Understandably, this causes confusion and pain for Franky far beyond the fact that his first sexual experience — or, well, the start of one — involved his childhood buddy. All those years of close friendship suddenly seem to have been erased and on top of that, he can’t talk about what he’s going through with his best friend.

In perhaps a surprising but certainly welcome development, Franky’s newfound outcast status makes him rekindle his childhood friendship with Ballas’ sister, the equally marginalized Natasha (Taylor Hickson). It’s refreshing to see how Franky tries to lean into a peer to resolve his issues, and one of their conversations about waiting for sex is a beautifully written dialogue that touches on issues of consent, desire and the difference between sex and love without ever sounding preachy. And while working through issues such as attraction and relationships, Franky finds a means to connect again with his old man, who doesn’t quite give a loving-father speech on the level of the already-iconic, paternal panegyric in Call Me by Your Name but whose kind words, pronounced in a walk-in closet of all places — gentle irony alert! — help Franky focus on what’s important. 

Though strong overall, Giant Little Ones has some rhythm and tone issues in its second half. Franky’s conversations with a female friend (Niamh Wilson) who might be transgender, for example, are at once awkwardly hilarious and frequently too on-the-nose and improbable (how many suburban kids will encounter such a large spectrum of queer possibilities within the space of a few weeks?). And there are a few moments in the home of the Kohls that feel incongruous and unnecessary, given that this is clearly Franky’s story to tell. But these are minor issues.

MacLachlan and Bello — the latter also one of the executive producers — are both warm, understanding parents that try to help their offspring in any way they can yet seem to understand that part of being a parent also means giving your children space and even letting them go. Mann, with his intense blue eyes, is believable as a friend turned sudden foe because his character is not mature enough to face his own issues. But the film belongs to Wiggins, who brings an openness and sincerity to Franky's struggles that help suggest to what extent his character's specific story has elements that everybody will be able to relate to.

Production companies: Euclid431, Sugar Shack Productions, Storyboard Entertainment, Scythia Films, Vigilante Productions
Cast: Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann, Maria Bello, Kyle MacLachlan, Taylor Hickson, Peter Outerbridge
Writer-director: Keith Behrman
Producer: Allison Black 
Director of photography: Guy Godfree
Production designer: Zosia MacKenzie
Costume designer: Marissa Schwartz
Editor: Sandy Pereira
Music: Michael Brook
Casting: Robin D. Cook, Jonathan Oliveira
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Celluloid Dreams / UTA

In English
No rating, 93 minutes