Directed by Andrew Cividino
Screenplay by Andrew Cividino, Blain Watters and Aaron Yeger
Sleeping Giant should be a crowd pleaser, especially in Canada, since it is always an auspicious occasion when a new Canadian director’s feature is well received at Cannes and TIFF. Sleeping Giant is well written, technically proficient and kinetically paced. It takes on the ticking time bomb of childhood’s transition from a fun and fancy-free summer to a tragic realization of the lost sense of self in the shadow of adulthood. Too bad I can’t help but respond to the film with a half-hearted shrug.
A coming of age tale of three teenage boys — Adam, Nate, and Riley — on summer vacation, its themes of fragile friendship, family, and romance feel like knocking low-hanging fruit off the branch. While it does capture the awkward tension of the tenuous bonds between 15-year-old boys, especially those with socio-economic differences and the petty jealousies and divisive spirit which can loom tall over previously strong friendships, Sleeping Giant has the perpetual feeling that “something important/tragic” is about to happen. It’s not simply foreshadowing, there’s a level of portent in the film’s tone which is difficult to pin down, but settles over it like a thin layer of plastic; just enough to distort it. For some, this may lead to a heightened sense of suspense, but it undercuts the film’s ability to live in the present, and lends an air of doom over the boys from the beginning.
Buoyed by strong performances from its three leads, it takes a less quirky, more realistic approach, relying on improvisation and the kids’ natural chemistry and charisma to mirror real life. Capturing the casual cruelty alongside their confusion about their place in life, there’s not a single good person present. The only characters who aren’t shown to be broken are underdeveloped mannequins, like Adam’s mother and Nate’s grandmother. The subtext of Adam’s struggle with his sexuality reveals a strength in the script, as instead of bringing it up indirectly, it skirts around it, allowing body language and elliptic questions to pepper the air, creating an ambiguous confusion that must mirror Adam’s. The problem is that the film escalates its conflict in a way that belies the realism it tries to maintain. An incredibly awkward game of Setters of Catan turns into a forced moment of melodramatic plot propulsion at odds with the meandering, nonnarrative approach throughout the first two-thirds of the film.
What is admirable about Sleeping Giant is how far it takes its sense of loss. Unlike its close cousin, the cloyingly sentimental Sundance-esque quirky indie flick, (think The Way, Way Back) this film follows its existential depression to its logical conclusion by foregoing a hope or balm for the future. This is not to say it is a hopeless film,only that it stops at the same point where its characters do naturally; in the midst of a bonfire of a tragedy, with teenage angst throwing oil on the flames.
Even though I admire its verve, Sleeping Giant fails to overcome its own lack of adding a new dimension to the conversation. Apart from its no holds barred approach, there’s not much to differentiate it from similar movies about broken families and broken children. In some ways, it does function as a funhouse mirror to more conventional, uplifting fare like Kings of Summer, but if so, then it doesn’t take it nearly far enough. I look forward to Andrew Cividino’s future films because he does have a deft handle on positioning place among actors within his cinema, but Sleeping Giant is already fading from memory.
The Vancouver International Film Festival takes place from September 24 – October 9, 2015. Visit the official website for more information.