It wasn’t that long ago that there were precious few movies about young people struggling with their sexuality.
“Coming out” stories, for obvious reasons, have been very important in the fight toward greater acceptance and inclusion in the LGBTQ community. In the post-Stonewall era, when taboos against non-heteronormative subject matter in films began to lift, such narratives were among the most popular vehicles for artists working in the developing queer cinema.
Mainstream Hollywood was, of course, far behind the curve; that changed in 2018, when “Love, Simon” became the first big studio production to tell a positive, normalized story about a gay teen coming out.
There will always be a need for such stories, of course; but in the post-“Simon” world, perhaps, the need might feel a little less urgent.
That’s why a movie like “Giant Little Ones,” a new Canadian offering about two teen boys whose lifelong friendship is threatened by a sexual transgression between them, could easily slip by unnoticed. In a queer cinematic landscape now dominated by other subjects, such as conversion therapy or the experiences – long-marginalized, even within the broader queer community – of trans people and people of color, who wants to see yet another movie about the struggles of young white males dealing with their sexual identity?
To brush it aside so quickly, however, would be a disservice to a thoughtful, nuanced, and fresh film that deserves your attention.
Written and directed by Keith Behrman, it follows Franky and Ballas, two high school boys who have been close friends since childhood. On the night of Franky’s 17th birthday, something happens between them that puts a strain on their relationship; a further wedge is driven when rumors start to spread around the school. As Franky finds himself being ridiculed and bullied, Ballas pulls further and further away, and the turmoil forces both teens to confront their own developing feelings – for each other, and for themselves.
In unfolding the story, Behrman reserves the full picture and reveals it only slowly, piece by piece, so that the audience is in step with the characters – or, more specifically, with Franky, who serves as the central point of view – all along the way. It’s a tactic that serves his purpose well; as we discover, with Franky, the answers to the questions about what is happening in his young life, we also join him in the discovery of answers about himself, allowing us to share with him the same emotional reactions.
What makes the journey refreshing is that, unlike other coming out movies, “Giant Little Ones” does not present the story from the perspective we have come to expect. More accurately, the “coming out” it depicts is not the kind of revelatory milestone that has almost become a trope; rather, the movie tells more of a “coming of age” story – not about expressing an identity but about taking stock of conflicted feelings around sexuality before trying to decide what that identity is.
Franky’s path through the upheaval in his life gives Behrman the opportunity to introduce multiple threads that explore the subtle influences of homophobia, both from without and within. The dynamics within both boys’ families reflect attitudes, prejudices, and resentments that stand out in stark relief against the backdrop of the inner questions they are facing; a culture of toxic masculinity pervades their high school, just below the surface, and social pressure subjects anyone who doesn’t fit within its boundaries to ostracization or worse; sexual experiences outside the norm – even traumatic ones – are used to shame those who have had them, reinforcing the defensive instinct to keep them as guilty secrets. It’s a lot to pack into one small, intimate story – but Behrman’s insightful screenplay and his organic, tenderly cultivated directorial approach make it all fit together in the service of what is essentially a simple, slice-of-life character study.
He’s helped tremendously by his cast.
The two boys, each of them “high school royalty,” as the press material describes them, are played by a pair of attractive young actors who fit the bill perfectly. As Franky, Josh Wiggins manages to maintain a warmth and generosity of spirit even as his turmoil takes him through anger and despair; he’s tremendously likable, an ideal access point for promoting empathy which extends to all involved in his situation. As Ballas, Darren Mann (of “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) is bristling with masculinity, a charismatic figure that becomes increasingly opaque as he struggles to keep his own self-doubt to break the surface; he complements Wiggins’ more sensitive, heart-on-the-sleeve portrayal and retains our sympathy even in his most cruel and callow moments.
There’s also a lovely, layered performance from Taylor Hickson, as Ballas’ sister Natasha, who becomes an unexpected ally to Franky in his turmoil and may be the bridge that can bring the two friends together again. For big name power, Kyle MacLachlan plays Franky’s estranged father with a subdued version of his iconic “Twin Peaks” earnestness that brings a quiet nobility to the film, and Maria Bello, as Franky’s mother, shows us the struggle of a woman trying to understand her son while still reeling from upheavals in her own life.
“Giant Little Ones” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of last year; it has since played a few other fests around the world, and will have its U.S. premiere in New York on March 1. In the wake of Oscar madness, it runs the risk of being overlooked while everyone scrambles to catch all the winners before they disappear from the big screen – but it shouldn’t be.
While it’s by no means a major landmark of LGBTQ cinema – at least from the immediate perspective of the here and now – it’s certainly worthy of a look. It’s a new take on the teen process of coming to terms with sexuality, one which carefully avoids tropes and formulas as it lays out a tale of learning to go deeper than labels.
In a culture consumed with identity politics, a movie that encourages us to avoid defining ourselves and to concentrate simply on loving each other seems almost radical – something “Giant Little Ones,” at least on the surface, is not. Even so, it’s a message that, while it may not be fashionable in the current moment, is always important; that, along with Behrman’s shrewdly understated handling of the subject matter, is enough to give his movie staying power, and makes it worth seeking out when it comes to LA on March 8.