The ‘Sleeping Giant’ in the title refers to a real place which is the film’s magnificent setting: a 244 km2 park in Ontario, named for the natural rock formation which resembles a gigantic sleeping form. It also seems to refer to the new, potentially dangerous feelings and impulses that begin to emerge, like a sleeping monster awakening, in the adolescent characters which are central to the film’s slow-paced, open-ended storyline.
The plot is a deceptively simple one. Fifteen year old Adam is vacationing with his parents in a handsome cottage on the shores of Lake Superior. He spends much of his time with cousins of his, Nate and Riley, two budding delinquents close to his age who are staying in a far more modest house with their loving but very permissive grandmother.
Adam is a little fearful of the rougher and more adventurous boys, but also fascinated by them, and he lets himself be drawn into a series of minor challenges and competitions.The boys’ informal contests begin as friendly, but their various insecurities and resentments are gradually revealed through their horseplay. Adam is torn between his dislike of Nate and Riley’s unruliness and disrespect, and a desire to fit in and to gain more independence from his affectionate but overprotective parents.
Adam’s parents’ influence continues to guide him until a few small incidents shift the relationships. First, Adam is shocked and angry to discover that his father is having an affair, causing him to reject his father’s well-intentioned guidance. Second, a rivalry begins to develop for the attention of a local girl, Taylor. At this point, the competitiveness among the three boys begins to subtly increase. Nate and Riley turn on Adam. They begin making contemptuous remarks about women, and about Taylor in particular, challenging him to object. Adam struggles, without adult guidance, to find a moral foothold among the chaos of mixed impulses he is ill-equipped to deal with.The film’s best quality is its subtlety. The increase in the intensity of the boys’ relationship is shown in a slow and gradual way, with no single dramatic event standing out; yet it becomes increasingly clear that the situation will somehow come to a head. The three boys’ escalating challenges, and the almost involuntary disclosure of each one’s hidden pain and anger, culminates in an ultimate challenge, which results in unexpected, yet seemingly inevitable tragedy, and an unhappy, slightly ominous resolution.
Virtual newcomer writer-director Andrew Cividino has taken a simplistic, homely story and turned it into a riveting character study, one which received awards and nominations at film festivals from Cannes on down. Natural scenes in the magnificent boreal forest environment, along with the use of light and shadow, and the contrast of idyllic scenery with gruesome aspects of nature, are expertly used to express mood and intent. Apart from Jackson Martin, who plays Adam, the child actors are amateurs; but the combination of directing and film editing produces not the impression of unstudied acting, but the naturalistic effect of a candid, cinema verité documentary.
Sleeping Giant draws the viewer in despite the bland subject matter, making every character intriguing and maintaining suspense and the feeling of impeding trouble perfectly.
For further viewing:
An Education (2009) features an adolescent girl dealing with much of the same confusion and mixed impulses as the boys in Sleeping Giant, but in the very different setting of 1960s London; while The Way Way Back (2013) follows a 14-year-old boy, bereft of a trustworthy father figure, struggling to make sense of his life with the help of an unlikely mentor.