Being a teenager is so freaking crazy. Your body’s unrecognizable, your hormones go wild and you’ve got these outsize adult feelings coursing through a brain that feels like it’s been hotwired, feelings adults hardly know what to do with and they’ve got, what’s the word? Oh yeah, experience. Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant (2015) captures the rush and confusion of adolescence perfectly. Set in a glorious Lake Superior summer, it follows the tumultuous relationship of three young teen boys frittering away not just the baking hot days but also their innocence. Boys being boys, that innocence is dubious at best, but when a girl comes between them, tense friendships unravel fast.
Adam (Jackson Martin) is a summer cottage dweller who’s fallen in with local boys Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino). They kill the endless sun-drenched hours wrestling, talking shit, getting high and breaking stuff. Riley and Nate are brothers, and they revel in the competitive violence some siblings are compelled to measure themselves by. Adam’s more introverted, but he admires Riley’s easy-going confidence, recognizing it as something he’s missing. Riley is drawn to Adam’s family and their upper-middle-class comforts, but especially to Adam’s dad William (David Disher). He doesn’t talk to the boys as adults exactly—he’s always cracking wise—but there’s a warmth and respect there Riley’s missing at home. Riley and Nate live with their grandmother, and they’re clearly running wild, swearing and smoking in her cramped apartment. Nate’s the younger brother, and the most troubled, flunking out at school. The kid’s got a real edge, and he loves to wind people up.
The rug gets pulled out from under the boys’ already mercurial relationship with the arrival of Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher). Adam’s known her for years, her cottage nearby. She’s the “friend” so many guys harbour a secret crush on growing up. Riley tells him to wise up and make a move, but Adam doesn’t have a clue where to begin. His advice cuts both ways, for Riley senses Taylor’s interested in him, and he isn’t about to wait for Adam to get it together. As the cherry on top of the teen angst sundae, the boys discover Adam’s family isn’t the idyllic domestic scene they thought. Resentments pile on, and pretty soon it’s clear these boundary-testing teens are headed to a dangerous place.
Sleeping Giant is a feature-length expansion of the short Cividino released last year. I loved the short, its confidence, beautiful images and casual destructiveness. This time out the two brothers (cousins in real life) reprise their roles, while everyone else is new. The added time and story make for some slack moments, despite the film’s short 90-minute running-time. But there’s bonafide tension between the boys that crackles regularly, and the youthful dynamics, however exasperating, never feel contrived. Cividino and his cinematographer James Klopko effectively capture the stark beauty of the north country, contrasting it with the pulsing colours of the local arcade or the kitschy bric-a-brac of cottage living. The rhythmic score by Bruce Peninsula and Chris Thornburrow shines as it builds thickening tension. The three leads are entirely convincing, from Nate’s snotty chip-on-his-shoulder to Riley’s overreaching bravado and Adam’s defensive yearning to be something he’s not. (There’s a tamped down hint of homoeroticism to the whole thing, but it’s an undercurrent that never surfaces, whatever Adam’s feelings might be.) The adults are good, but don’t have as much to work with, David Disher standing out as Adam’s compromised dad.
The film’s verisimilitude is its most striking feature. There’s moments like when the kids shoot fireworks into the lake at night that feel lifted directly from my own Muskoka memories. Anyone who’s filled long summer days with shenanigans and stupidity will feel the wincing pang of recognition: “shit, is that what I looked like?” Sleeping Giant itself is a real island, with forbidding, sheer rocky cliffs. And, for the boys, the sleeping giant is the incomprehensible morass of adult action and responsibility. Cividino pushes his story to the brink, the boys confronting their inevitable fall. The ending is painful, and barely resolved, but in spite of all that, Sleeping Giant soars.
Sleeping Giant will appear again at TIFF on Tuesday, September 15th at 9pm and Thursday, September 17th at 9pm. It’s slated to play the Vancouver International Film Festival in October. For TIFF tickets and info, see here.