“That’s the point. Something’s got to change.”
Winner of the Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF and Best Canadian Feature in Vancouver after bowing at Cannes last May, Andrew Cividino‘s feature-length debut Sleeping Giant has earned itself a pretty impeccable pedigree. An expansion of his 2013 short film of the same name, this coming-of-age drama on the summer shores of Thunder Bay, Ontario is a universal tale for viewers of all nationalities. With the time period left ambiguous—cell phones aren’t used and the one video camera seen in this cottage community still uses cassette tapes—it resonates with all ages too, calling back to memories of youthful malaise and rambunctious rebellion. And it pulls no punches as far as love, sex, drugs, or jealousy are concerned. “Fun” possesses many definitions, but even more consequences.
The story surrounds Adam Hudson (Jackson Martin), the only child of a family that’s frequented the retreat for many years. Dad (David Disher‘s William) and Mom (Lorraine Philp‘s Linda) seem the perfect pair, egging their son on jovially while also engaging him rather than simply going about their business. Just turned fifteen, Adam’s starting to branch out of his bubble by thinking about best friend Taylor (Katelyn McKeeracher) romantically as well as roaming with a couple of troublemakers in Nate (Nick Serino) and Riley (Reece Moffett. These two are cousins staying with their grandma (Rita Serino)—the former as an annual trip to study for classes he failed at school while the latter has never been. They’re exactly what Adam needs and yet the worst thing for him.
Adam’s the goody-two-shoes, never having drunk a beer or toked a joint. Nate and Riley take him under their wing, opening his eyes to the world while providing an alternative to wheelbarrow races and eggs-on-spoons. Nate’s the instigator devoid of sympathy or compassion when it comes to poking and prodding for reactions. Riley’s different, though—he’s from the same “side of the tracks” as his cousin, but doesn’t embrace it. He’ll do dumb stuff with Nate, but the opportunity to hang with Adam and his dad on the water stirs a sense of belonging to be better. This desire to change catalyzes a rift pitting Nate and Adam as adversaries. Once the situations they find themselves in escalate, bad things are bound to happen as a result.
Cividino imbues Sleeping Giant with an intense authenticity I wouldn’t be surprised to hear was helped by ad-libbing above his, Blain Watters, and Aaron Yeger‘s script. There’s honesty to the trio’s disparate demeanors, a camaraderie that isn’t afraid to grow conflicted or on-edge. I love the scenes where Nate does all he can to rile Adam up, spewing hateful, misogynistic words without needing to realize what he’s saying only to receive a quietly unsure smile in return. Adam doesn’t want to stoop to his level; the thought of doing so never crosses his mind. He smiles to tell Nate, “Ha-ha, we get it.” But Nate isn’t trying to be funny; he’s trying to get punched. He wants Adam to feel the rage he himself cannot control.
Nate does the same to Riley knowing his cousin isn’t as even-keeled to fend him off. Riley continuously gets dragged back and forth, struggling to be what he wants and not what people believe him to be. Their dynamic moves from close-knit to rocky as the plot progresses, Taylor’s attraction and Adam’s father’s indiscretions throwing in secrets and emotional duress to ratchet up the intensity level. Suddenly Adam’s selfishness rises to show he may have more in common with Nate than Riley. The two start to literally pull their friend apart until none can control their own actions anymore. All thought disappears to be replaced by lies and dares. And with the 100-plus meter drop of Todd’s Cliff looming above the lake, tragedy’s but a hair’s breadth away.
These young actors are superb in their roles, each embodying the complexities of early teen life and the adult struggles they face without the maturity to appropriately handle. Martin’s Adam is a staggering example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing with an almost unconscious drive to be in control despite being the one willingly leaving his comfort zone. Moffett’s Riley toes the line of indifferent scamp wreaking havoc until the better life whets his appetite to change, his genial nature only matched by the extreme intensity of his anger-fueled isolation. And Serino’s Nate may be the best of all. On paper he is the easy one—loudmouthed, volatile, and unpredictable. Serino, however, refuses to devolve into caricature and always shows a mixture of glee and pain in his eyes.
In the end these three are inseparable no matter the tumult threatening to rip them apart. Nate and Adam are so worried about becoming the other that they simultaneously transform into manipulative brats while Riley without fail looks beyond their jealousies at two people he loves. It’s a tragic reality that the diplomat trying his best to find peace when not fighting his own personal urge to blow things up is the one to endure the most pain. This story ultimately depicts the loss of childhood and unavoidable suffering we all must endure to overcome. It’s a wake-up call about the hard existential truths that come along with imperfect existences. Compromises are made, disasters ignored, and sorrow ignited via emotional duress. This is the fallibility of mortal men.
Courtesy of TIFF