Giant Little Ones
It’s tricky and dangerous to try and label anything as a potential watershed moment in cinema, particularly when it comes to films aimed at teenage audiences and especially something as nuanced and delicate as Canadian writer-director Keith Behrman’s second feature, Giant Little Ones. I’m not talking about the kind of bombastic, horn blowing hype that comes with claiming something is one of the best films of the year or one of the best films ever made, but rather the feeling one gets when they see a movie and they immediately recognize that it could have a deep, impressionable meaning for someone who needs to see it the most.
Teens have always been traditionally picky and hard to predict with regard to what they gravitate towards (regardless of how much times have changed since the advent of cinema) and what they choose to champion, but I have a strong feeling that there are at least a handful of young people who will see Giant Little Ones and have their lives and outlooks changed. Will they claim it’s their favourite film of all time? Maybe. Who knows? But there will undoubtedly be many who will cite Giant Little Ones as a film that impacted their life in a positive way. It’s one of the highest and rarest compliments that can be given to a film. It’s a film made for life as we know it today, and while it’s not a perfect package, the impact it could make on the people it needs to reach the most shouldn’t be understated.
Giant Little Ones is a complex, weighty, and sometimes realistically confusing look at modern teen sexuality. Josh Wiggins stars as Franky Winter, a handsome, seemingly average teenager. He lives in a small town, has a pseudo-girlfriend, and spends most of his time hanging out with his horndog best buddy and swimming squad teammate, Ballas (Darren Mann). Franky’s mom (Maria Bello, who also serves as a producer) is recently divorced, as a result of his father (Kyle MacLachlan) coming out of the closet and moving in with his new boyfriend. Franky seems to enjoy his normal teenage life; turning a blind eye to anything that could potentially be problematic or confrontational.
Following a house party on the evening of his seventeenth birthday, an inebriated Franky and Ballas paint the town red, ending up back at the Winter house. Something sexual happens between Franky and Ballas, and things get awkward. The fallout from what happens takes a few days to simmer, but a rift quickly splits the friends apart, and rumours swirl that Franky is gay, and he tried to make unwanted advances on Ballas. Franky insists that things happened the other way around, but he finds the fact that this information got out distressing. Ballas doubles down on homophobic fears that already run through the swim team, making Franky’s life a living hell. If anything positive comes from all the bullying and misinformation swirling about, it’s that Franky is brought closer together with Ballas’ misunderstood and unfairly slut shamed sister, Natasha (Taylor Hickson), an estranged friend who becomes a trusted confidant and potential love interest.
Giant Little Ones isn’t a film that’s played for grossout laughs or lachrymose melodrama, the two tenors that most teen movies revolving around sexuality and identity find themselves pigeonholed into. Behrman’s approach is narratively and emotionally complex. Most films about teenage sexuality choose the simplest terms to label their characters: straight, gay, bisexual, or asexual. Giant Little Ones is a film that takes great pains to show how labels often don’t apply to people. While there are characters that could be easily defined in Behrman’s film as gay, straight, or queer, the filmmaker never applies any labels to Ballas or Franky. There’s ambiguity, confusion, and curiosity, but while Franky has accepted what happened that night and wants to move on, Ballas staunchly refuses to acknowledge the truth and instead wallows in self loathing. Franky regrets that he might’ve lost his best friend, while Ballas regrets his basest impulses and lashes out.
These are feelings that are experienced every day by teenagers around the world, and they’re almost never depicted as realistically or thoughtfully as they are in Giant Little Ones. A much more crowd pleasing movie would’ve found ways of constructing grandiose set pieces out of the characters’ torments and triumphs. There would be far more comedic relief. There would be big speeches from Franky’s parents about the nature of acceptance. What Behrman gives the audience is an entertaining, gorgeously photographed, smartly edited, and moving film with no scenes that feel over-constructed, a single, realistically rambling speech from MacLachlan’s concerned father, and no clear resolutions to any of the characters’ questions or problems. The lack of convention and forced perspectives leads to a film that refuses to talk down to those who could stand to learn from the film. It’s far more comforting than a pat on the back and telling someone that everything is going to be okay. They have to figure things out for themselves, but there’s hope for brighter days ahead.
A big part of the film’s success can be attributed to Behrman’s three young leads, who perfectly understand their complex characters. Wiggins nicely captures the ups and downs of being a teenager experiencing a lot of huge emotions at once. Whether happy, sad, or angry, there’s always an appropriate level of awkwardness in Wiggins’ portrayal of Franky that’s consistently endearing and empathetic. In the more volatile role, Mann excels at playing a character stuck in the lowest extremes of his personality. Ballas does some truly reprehensible and unforgivable things, but Mann makes sure that the audience can see his inner conflict playing out through his bullying actions. Despite being in a supporting role, Hickson has just as interesting an arc as the leads, as a young woman who initially hates Franky, but ends up becoming fast friends and possibly more with him. About an hour in, a revelation is made about the relationship between Franky and Natasha, and it not only forces the viewer to reconsider everything they know about Behrman’s characters, but also showcases the depth and nuance of Hickson’s multilayered performance. They’re all spectacular, and it’s hard to imagine three more attentive performers to take on these roles.
If there’s anything wrong with Giant Little Ones, it’s that Behrman’s desire to look at as many points on the sexual spectrum in a single film gives way to a problem many teen movies suffer from: an abundance of supporting characters that seem important and interesting, but are ultimately underdeveloped. There’s a subplot about a gay member of the swim team getting harassed by Ballas’ rampantly homophobic buddies that curiously doesn’t go anywhere at all, even though it initially looks like the lynchpin of the film’s entire plot. There’s a queer, trans-curious friend of Franky’s that’s only trotted out for the film’s single misplaced moment of crude humour (which isn’t offensive, but is, however, awkwardly integrated and unnecessarily drawn out). Franky has a sister, but all we really know about her is that she’s older than her brother and that she still has great fondness for their dad, and Ballas has a girlfriend who’s only identifiable as being kinda mean. These characters occupy a decent chunk of screen time, but they’re more distractions than enhancements. It’s commendable that Behrman would want to be as inclusive as possible in a film about sexual fluidity, but there is such a thing as being admirably overstuffed, and Giant Little Ones crosses that line more than a few times.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t think Giant Little Ones is a perfect film. I still hope that young people who are going through similar struggles with their identities see Behrman’s film and find some amount of hope. That’s inarguably a more important endorsement for any work of honest art and emotion than saying something is perfect. The characters in Giant Little Ones would admit across the board that they aren’t perfect, and hopefully the film will show those who need to see it the most that they don’t have to be, either.
Giant Little Ones opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and Cineplex International Village in Vancouver on Friday, March 29, 2019. It expands to additional cinemas in Canada throughout the spring. Director Keith Behrman and producer Allison Black will be on hand for the 7:30pm performance of the film at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, March 29th for a post film Q&A.
Check out the trailer for Giant Little Ones:
And check out our interview with Taylor Hickson about the film from TIFF back in September: