Every film festival has its fair share of sweet little indie movies about troubled adolescences and suburban angst, not to mention stories of bright young teens discovering their sexuality. It’s as much a staple of the season as underfed and overworked critics fighting for the last mini muffin in the press room. The downside of this is that it can be tough for something to stand out when it’s one of a plethora of such stories. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have checked out Giant Little Ones, the second film by Canadian director Keith Behrman, if certain circumstances had not led me into an early morning screening. Then again, that’s half the fun of the festival — discovering those gems you otherwise would have overlooked.
Giant Little Ones follows Franky (Josh Wiggins, looking so very like Lucas Hedges’s baby brother), a 17-year-old boy living what he would assume to be a pretty normal life. He’s on the swim team at school, he’s close to his mother (Maria Bello) but is frosty with his father (Kyle MacLachlan) since he moved out, and he always has his best friend Ballas (Darren Mann) by his side. At a birthday party, something happens between Franky and Ballas, and soon the pressure of discovering one’s identity and dealing with a splintering friendship become public knowledge.
Behrman offers a less neatly packaged take on the coming-out narrative, as nobody ever technically comes out in this film. Franky has a sexual encounter with Ballas that the latter is quickly repulsed by and soon the gay rumours are flying, but this is less a story about accepting one’s identity as publicly dictated than realizing it’s OK to take your own path in discovering who you are. Bello’s character at one point asks with bemusement if queerness isn’t supposed to be the in thing with teens nowadays, but even the hive mind of high school in 2018 cannot help but want things to be neatly boxed up. Franky is immediately labeled as gay while Ballas isn’t: One is predator and one is prey, although this dog-whistle is never directly said. It doesn’t have to be.
Such moments in the film can feel a little too didactically delivered. MacLachlan’s character, Franky’s father, is a gay man who came out later in life, which causes immense confusion for his ex-wife, but he’s also forever on hand to remind audiences that yes, sexuality is a spectrum and there’s no real way to be who you are. It’s much appreciated — frankly, I think we could use more of that in pop culture these days — but in a film so subtly composed and frequently raw in its emotions, these scenes are almost like a pat on the back. Fortunately, MacLachlan is basically the perfect helpful gay dad on film.
Giant Little Ones has a sharpness about it that seems at odds with how tender much of its storytelling is. It captures that unique dichotomy of adolescence where everything is simultaneously the best and worst it will ever be. Hormones are high but feelings are repressed. Franky takes long freeing bike rides and finds peace in the swimming pool but soon the smothering pressures and whispers of high school life start again. And high school is brutal, as Behrman is quick to remind those of us who have forgotten that teenagers are always a few steps away from being pure evil. The violence is frequent and it is not timid, and the hesitation from the adults to step in and remedy the situation speaks volumes.
The film is grounded by a strong performance by Josh Wiggins, and the Lucas Hedges comparison does not feel inaccurate. He carries that similar weight on his shoulders, the furrowed brow and emotional conflict that make him so charming even when he’s being petulant. He’s a teenager playing an actual teenager and you’d be surprised by how much of a difference that makes with such a story. This kid could go far.
The first act is so focused and emotionally sturdy that the second half can’t help but feel muddied when it tries for big laughs (with a literal dick-measuring contest) and a neater after-school special take on the tangled themes. By the end, the film knows itself better and gets back on track, helped by a moment of quiet scene stealing from MacLachlan.
It’s always nice to discover surprises, and Giant Little Ones has immense appeal for audiences beyond its core demographic. While it doesn’t maintain that evocative longing and turmoil for the entire running time, the film remains vibrant, inviting and empathetic to issues oft-discussed but seldom in such a freeing manner. Besides, couldn’t we all use adorable gay dad Kyle MacLachlan in our lives?
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF