If Andrew Cividino had been able to make a feature film the second he had a solid idea for one, he said, in a Q&A following a screening, it almost certainly would have been worse than what he has now. Comparing his finished film to the short it started as, he said, “I think I was willing to make more brave choices and push the process of how I wanted to make it — we did more improv, we were much more impressionistic visually, and maybe a little less focused on exact plotting.”
Even after that refining process, Sleeping Giant shows many of the typical qualities and drawbacks of a first film: a narrow, autobiographical focus; a tendency toward energetic montage; a strong emphasis on youthful expression that at times spills over into nostalgia. Set around the summer houses by Lake Superior in Ontario, the film follows three boys: Adam (Jackson Martin, looking like a younger Edward Clements from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and playing a similar part of not quite fitting into an unfamiliar class of friends, though in this case it’s his parents that own the largest coastal view in his circle), Nate (Nick Serino), and Riley (Reece Moffett) — the latter two are a brother-team that lead the region in breaking shit, free-associating on adolescent ideas of death and sex, and wrestling on the beach, looking the part of the active, unshowered, long-haired skater kids that will just as soon chill out or flip out.
For Cividino, while the coming of age narrative clearly has a pull that he follows on a script level (co-written with Blain Watters and Aaron Yeger), and, at least in segments, on a visual level (music-video-like interludes scored to Bruce Peninsula, a band that will remind you of a past when the world was more filled than it is today with acts inspired by Arcade Fire), what’s remarkable about Sleeping Giant is the steps it takes to not simply be a well-made diary piece. There is no first-person narration, so while the camera frequently adopts Adam’s perspective, the film’s point of view shifts from scene to scene, at some points celebrating, at others more ambivalent as it watches the kids move from willful animals dreaming of illegal fun to human beings inexperienced with conflict, but in it nonetheless.
Adam’s father, played as a loose, easy-to-know Dad by David Disher, an adult who wants to play both sides of the authority-teen-riot divide is, in a sense, attracted to nostalgia, over-identifying with and encroaching on his son’s life while taking-and-leaving responsibility: his fireworks-backdrop betrayal of trust is the film’s only major plot development until its climax.
And so, in addition to a fast-paced, trying-to-be-cool adolescent narrative (a movie for those who could not stand the squareness of Boyhood’s Mason Jr.), Sleeping Giant is also a film attuned to the moral implications of choices made by people unable to reflect on past experiences. Adam, ever the introvert, hangs back, watches what other people do, and, at first slightly, manipulates, on the one hand caring deeply about the outcome, but on the other, just seeing what will happen, relishing the ability to act without being pushed or shouted down. While Cividino’s film isn’t as lofty or accomplished as the works of canonical playwrights, it has a similar approach to theme and culmination: this is a work that intentionally focuses on what happens to a seagull, parallels insect life and human behaviour, and turns teenage wishes into something approaching narrative discomfort, all unexpected turns from an otherwise fun, blue skies, stars at night, endless-time-stretched-summer cassette tape of a movie.
At one point, as Adam, Nate, and Riley hang out at a pot dealer’s trailer, playing video games, the film seems to exist in a Canadian parallel version of the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike. If Cividino’s approach diverges from that film’s ethic of care and grace, and is limited by the way it uses characters as pieces that guide or teach a single main protagonist, it shares with it an empathy for, and small regret for, the wildness of youth and how it is shaped.