Giant Little Ones (Canada 2018)

Ballas (Darren Mann, left) and Franky (Josh Wiggins, right)

Giant Little Ones is a small anglophone Canadian independent film promoted as a ‘coming of age’ film and currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 10 months. I missed its original TV broadcast (and I was unaware that Lionsgate released it for streaming in the UK in 2019) but it was recommended by a friend. It is certainly a youth picture but its main distinguishing feature is its presentation of a queer narrative – labelling it ‘coming of age’ seems evasive to me. Franky and Ballas are two high school ‘jocks’ – popular young men on the swimming team with steady girlfriends. They have been friends since early childhood in comfortable suburbia (the film was shot in Saulte Ste. Marie, Northern Ontario) but on the night of Franky’s 17th birthday an incident pushes them apart and forces Franky to deal with a major change in the way his classmates treat him.

Franky with Natasha (Taylor Hickson) in school

The central relationship is complicated by a large group of secondary characters, each with a contribution to make to Franky’s story. Franky’s parents Carly and Ray (played by the two ‘stars’ in the film, Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan) separated a few years earlier when Ray fell hard for a male work colleague and decided he must live with his new lover. Besides his original girlfriend, Franky has arguably more meaningful interactions with Ballas’ sister Natasha (who has her own back story) and Melissa, a classmate who is seemingly exploring the idea of changing her gender identity. I’m a little unsure about Melissa as a character partly because of my major technical problem in viewing the film – I couldn’t find any subtitles. As with many modern films the sound mix of Giant Little Ones proved indecipherable for my ancient ears at times. The actors swallow their lines and there is a great deal of music (not in itself an issue). Franky has his earbuds in most of the time and one reviewer suggests that the dialogue is partly ‘earbud’ sound so I don’t think I’m alone with the problem. I often use subtitles for US teen films, partly because of the slang but I generally find the Canadian accent more pleasing.

Talking it over with Dad, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan)

My problem with the dialogue didn’t stop me following the narrative but forgive me if it seems that I have misread any scenes or any character behaviour. What should we make of a film that has been warmly received by many audiences and especially by LBGTQ+ audiences? In one sense, it is a recognisable conventional film as this interviewer suggests on an Australian website:

DR: The film seems like a perfect entry in a genre that would be very familiar to queer film festival-goers: gay teen has crush on hunky best friend, something happens on a sleepover and high-school consequences ensue. It probably took me a couple of days after watching the film to recognise how thoroughly it subverts all those narrative conventions. (Daniel Reeders on starobserver.com.au)

Those narrative conventions include homophobia, toxic masculinity and sexual assault etc. as well as the concept of gender fluidity. But somehow these actions, whether visualised or alluded to in dialogue, don’t determine the overall impact of the narrative. In the same interview quoted above, Daniel Reeders suggests that the film is “a love letter to gentle masculinity”. That seems like a good call and it derives to a large extent from the performance of Josh Wiggins as Franky. The writer-director of the film Keith Behrman has said that he thinks that making the right casting decision was the crucial factor in the success of the film. He spent a long time developing and honing the script with producer Alison Black and he suggests that Wiggins is a sensitive actor who understood the script so well that he need only minimal direction. I certainly feel that it is an extraordinary performance and that the actor, who would have been 19 at the time, is convincing as a 17 year-old.

Ballas has his own pool in his back garden

All the performances are good and the film flows almost effortlessly. That must be a result of script and performance but also camerawork (Guy Godfree) and editing (Sandy Pereira), music scoring by Michael Brook and overall control by Behrman. As several reviews state, anyone watching the first part of the film will probably feel that they know where it is going but it probably won’t turn out as they expect. I won’t say any more about the narrative. Please watch it and make up your own mind. I simply note that Keith Behrman spent a long time thinking about the story and waited to make the film. He did fear that it might not resonate with contemporary young audiences but he says that they seem to get it. Aspects of it have also become more topical in the last few years.

I would just like to add a few comments about the film’s status as a Canadian independent. It is noticeable that the leads are primarily US actors (Wiggins is from Texas). Taylor Hickson as Natasha and Darren Mann as Ballas are the main Canadian actors (I think he is much older than his character, though he looks the part). There is an easy two-way movement of actors between US and anglo-Canadian film and TV but Canadian films are distinct from US films made in Canada. It’s interesting that the swimming team features in the film. Swimming is a strong Canadian sport and the only other alternative might have been hockey, but swimming allows photography of these young male bodies. This reminded me of Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (France 2007) about teenage girls in a synchronised swimming team. More recently, I was reminded of Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020) about Canadian women’s competitive swimming. Another youth picture which shares some elements is Victoria Day (Canada 2009) with its hockey background for a young man. Canadian films often struggle in international distribution, especially the anglophone ones, but I hope this exposure on iPlayer finds audiences in the UK. I forgot to mention that the film is in nicely shot ‘Scope. Here’s the TIFF trailer:

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