Published Sep 21, 2015Writer/director Andrew Cividino's feature debut — Sleeping Giant, based on his 2014 short film of the same name — gives a terrible first impression. Teenagers Nate (Nick Serino), Riley (Reese Moffet) and Adam (Jackson Martin) sit around a picnic table trying to outdo each other with crudity, talking over each other in a manner that gives an impression of faux-precocious improvisation. It seems like we're going to have to endure an abundance of forced dialogue and unnatural developments from a bunch of non-actors. Fortunately, this impression couldn't be further off the mark.
Most of this awkwardness comes from Nate, the youngest and smallest of the three. He's outspoken and obnoxious, constantly trying to sound tougher, funnier, raunchier and more experienced than his peers. Once this is established and the group develops a dynamic — Riley, Nate's older cousin, is a bit rough around the edges but well-intentioned, while Adam, the outsider, is shy and effete — it's clear that this is just who he is: a braggart with a propensity for instigating conflict and needling people until they lash out. This sort of archetype is almost a cliché: they come from lower-income broken homes and typically spend their entire lives there, screwing depressed waitresses and ultimately drinking and smoking themselves to death.
These character contrasts, ones that develop slowly and naturally before clashing and forcing a coming-of-age paradigm, ultimately propel Sleeping Giant forward. Every narrative development is derived from these boys and how they interact.
The basic shell of the plot finds Adam lashing out and retreating emotionally when he finds his emaciated aging vegan of a dad cheating on his mom with the fish market checkout girl. There's also an ersatz antagonist introduced in the form of Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher), a local girl who's friends with Adam and sort of curious about Riley in a romantic context. This establishes a potential divide between Riley and Adam, as does Riley's preoccupation with Adam's family and his need to be a part of it.
On paper, this is all pretty boilerplate; teenagers realizing that their parents are flawed while dabbling with adult romantic entanglements is sort of par for the course and, in a way, Sleeping Giant could be seen as a rehash of Kings of Summer, but without the comedy. But as these characters interact more and we start to read between the lines of what's going on, an astonishing sense of insight and intimacy starts to arise. Once this shrewdly observed and ultimately devastating drama starts to reach its climax, it's clear that the emotions, ideas and concepts Cividino is trying to expose in these teens — all of whom deliver rather involved and impressive performances (particularly Martin) — are far more sincere and involved than other stories with this setup could seemingly allow.
Though it's never outwardly stated, there's a sense that Adam is a closeted homosexual. Early in the film, when the boys roughhouse and discuss using various female classmates as a "cumdumpster," Cividino is careful to capture the closeness of Riley and Adam wrestling. It's not overt, nor are the occasional shots of Adam gazing at Riley when he thinks no one is watching, but it's definitely there and it explains why he reacts to Taylor — his friend (who Nate establishes he's never fucked) who ultimately expresses a romantic interest in Riley and actually has the potential to fulfil her desire — in the manner that he eventually does. This balance of him quietly developing feelings for his new friend while trying to demonstrate outward heteronormative behaviour and reconcile the disdain he has for his flawed father is handled perfectly. Martin has a knack for projecting subtle manipulation; how the young actor handles lying on camera is something other actors should take note of. Cividino, meanwhile, understands this world entirely, capturing the pain and awkwardness of these many conflicting feelings with absolute clarity.
Most feature directorial debuts aren't this accomplished — in fact, most features from experienced filmmakers aren't this accomplished. Sleeping Giant is wholly successful in its aims, and it's hard to imagine anyone not finding something familiar within, whether it pertains to growing up, dealing with disappointment, small-town life or hurting those we love for reasons we're afraid to verbalize. (D Films)