TIFF Review: 'Sleeping Giant'

Sleeping Giant
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Andrew Cividino, Writ. Andrew Cividino, Aaron Yeger, Blain Watters
Starring: Jackson Martin, Nick Serino, Reece Moffett, Katelyn McKerracher, David Disher
Programme: Discovery (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Sleeping Giant comes home to Canada after a booming premiere at Cannes earlier this year. Director/co-writer Andrew Cividino makes his feature debut with Sleeping Giant and, much like he did with his acclaimed short film of the same name at last year’s festival, the director hits Toronto as one of the more notable up-and-comers on the contemporary Canadian film scene and international indie circuit alike. Sleeping Giant is a great feature debut: tall, robust, and wise.

Fans of the short will find ample rewards in this expansion of the fateful summer story centered on three teenage boys, cottager Adam (Jackson Martin) and locals Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serrino). (Moffett and Serrino both reprise their roles from the short while Martin is new to the Sleeping Giant family.) Adam comes from a very different walk of life than his friends do, as Riley becomes especially intrigued by Adam’s affluent parents who speak to kids like they’re adults. A shot of two forks at Riley’s place setting, rather than the usual one he has at his grandmother’s table, astutely creates a fish-out-of-water tale for both boys. Riley is more sociable and mature than either Adam or Nathan (the wildest of the three) is, and he becomes a silent leader as the boys bond by chucking rocks, fooling around, stealing beer, and checking out girls.

Anyone who’s ever relished a summer at the cottage during one’s adolescence will immediately recognize and appreciate the authenticity of Sleeping Giant’s singular portrait of summer life. Cividino’s unique style—something akin to observational filmmaking, but more involved and burning—injects the viewer right into the lives of these three boys as they come of age in the rugged outdoors. Cinematographer James Klopko also deserves major kudos for shooting the film like an omniscient friend privy to all they boys’ shenanigans, as both the scope and intimacy of the visual plain is awesome. Sleeping Giant captures the malaise of cottage life with scenes of the boys making mischief simply to kill time, such as using the carcass of a seagull for fun. Similarly, the film harness the seeming limitlessness one feels when confronted with the expansive panorama of the water, rocks, and trees.

Central to this power is the awesome view the boys take in from Todd’s Cliff. Todd’s Cliff, a pivotal setting for both the short film and feature film, takes its name from the one boy who was brave enough to jump from its massive height. Both versions of Sleeping Giant begin with the lo-res VHS image of Todd jumping boldly off the cliff, screaming and laughing like the king of the jungle, and in each film, the boys find a romanticized notion of masculinity as they idolize Todd’s bravery to make the one leap they’re too afraid to take. The boys get the power of the jump from Todd firsthand as they hang with him, smoke pot, and play video games: this guy’s a loser, clinging to his one adolescent claim to fame, but to Nathan especially, he’s the epitome of a man’s man.

A second leap lingers amongst the boisterous play of summer, however, that proves more daunting than Todd’s Cliff. That leap, of course, is going from friendship to love. Adam’s other friend at the cottages is his long-time BFF Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher), who’s growing up and becoming quite the talking point between the boys of the bay. Her relationship with Adam is strictly platonic, but everyone from Riley to Nathan’s dad (David Disher, My Father and the Man in Black) thinks that Adam should make the most of his youth and tap that while the timing’s right.

Therein lies the underlying intensity of Sleeping Giant: does Adam really know whom he loves? The film marks a subtle and evocative coming of age story for Adam, and perhaps a coming-out-of-the-closet one too as Adam’s reluctance to make the move from being friends to “friends” with Taylor might say more than he lets on. Martin’s excellently bashful and observant performance lets the audience wonder what kind of personal awakening Adam undergoes as his gaze lingers more on Riley than it does on Taylor. Whether he simply looks up to the more outgoing boy as a mentor, or as more than just a friend, goes effectively unsaid as Sleeping Giant captures the confusing uncertainty of young love and unfamiliar rumblings.

In this nuanced treatment of Adam’s evolution does Cividino best convey his own maturation as a filmmaker from Sleeping Giant the short to Sleeping Giant the feature. Both films question Adam’s sexuality, but the director shows a remarkable progression for handling the artistic difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ in the two films. The short film merely has Nathan directly ask Adam if he’s gay. It’s a normal off-the-cuff question between teenage boys, especially for ones like Nathan who need to assert themselves now and again, and the reaction shot on Adam’s face says enough after he denies it. In the feature, though, Sleeping Giant implies, rather than explicitly voices, Adam’s questioning. Once again, the reaction shots to Martin say more as he lets his eyes linger a little too long. His own sense of betrayal when a boy makes a move on Taylor is less a disappointment in Taylor than it is in the other boy (or perhaps himself), while his childish meddling between the friends shows that Adam is still very much in the process of becoming sure of himself. On the other hand, Sleeping Giant lets the action between the boys simply convey the power of homosocial bonds in this pivotal point in the friends’ lives. Adam and Riley wrestle, yes, but there’s nothing to say that Adam becomes aroused during the tussle, other than that Riley gives him a very strange look before the film cuts to another bit of boisterous play.

The film adeptly shows what a strange, beautiful, and above all, confusing time adolescence can be for young boys, especially in the wild and powerful wilderness. Sleeping Giant grows up in its journey from short to feature, and Cividino’s maturation as a filmmaker is a gigantic leap.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

 Sleeping Giant screens:
-Tuesday, Sept. 15 at the Winter Garden Theatre at 9:00PM
-Thursday, Sept. 17 at TIFF Lightbox 3 at 9:00 PM

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