The Giants (Les géants)

Belgium (2011) Dir. Bouli Lanners

When we were kids we all yearned for freedom from adults around us, allowing us to run amok and have adventures unfettered from disapproval and stringent rules. Yet without being able to return to our families or the oppression of adult rule to rebel against, this freedom wouldn’t mean as much as it does.

In rural Belgium, teen brothers, 15 year-old Seth (Martin Nissen) and 13 ¾ year-old Zak (Zacharie Chasseriaud), hang listlessly around their late grandfather’s house, with little money for food or other supplies, and even less idea when their mother is likely to come for them. When joyriding in their grandfather’s old car, they meet local lad Dany (Paul Bartel) and they get together to smoke weed and lark about.

Enjoying their adult adventures together, the brothers learn that Dany’s elder bullying brother Angel (Karim Leklou) works for local dealer Beef (Didier Toupy) and hope they could get some more weed directly from him. With no money or anything to offer, Beef suggests he rents the house from the boys for six months a year whilst they at home in the city with a view of turning it into a cannabis factory.

Despite the idea the brothers are home owners (bequeathed) they and Dany are still kids with no clue how the adult world really works, as resourceful as they may be. It’s a story that has been told many times before under different circumstances, though the country setting seems to be the default location for youthful adventures, actor-turned-director Bouli Lanners shows a canny knack for wringing every drop of pathos out of it.

The Giants is of course an ironic title since we have three small protagonists effectively trying to survive in a world too big for them, but their resourcefulness and steely resolve belies their junior years, holding them in good stead for when the chips are down, even if it is temporary. There is nothing on record to suggest this is autobiographical or based on real events, but the script by Lanners and Elise Ancion (also the film’s costume designer) has a slight nostalgic feel to it as if one of the leads is recalling their past.

It is this evocative aura bolstered by the natural performances from the young cast that gives the film its credibility and gravitas, for the most part at least – Angel is very much a caricature of the abusive older brother unable to string two words together without grunting, and beef and his emotionally inert girlfriend Marth (Gwen Berrou) also feel comedic. However their treatment of the youngsters is anything but funny.

One gaping hole in the plot is the absence of the mother. Supposedly away working, she only occasionally contacts Zak by phone and even then the conversations are vague on details and lacking sincerity. It is implied she has remained in the city and the boys are on their summer break but having left them with no money or food, her impending return seems less likely by the minute.

Zak and Seth don’t seem that bad a mother would abandon them like this though no-one would mistake them for choirboys either. To feed themselves they sneak into the cellar of the neighbours and steal from them. Essentially this is every boy’s adventure tale of youthful hijinks and self-sufficiency until they meet Beef and end up homeless and out of pocket.

Along with Dany, they sneak into apparently empty homes, which naturally backfires. At one very plush abode, the trio sample everything on offer, including a hair bleaching kit. The next morning the owners arrive and the lads summarily scarper, ending up on the road half naked but with perfect platinum blonde hair! Luckily a kindly woman (Marthe Keller) with her downs daughter picks them up and takes them back to her home.

Very little dialogue passes between the two parties so whatever prompted this altruistic act isn’t revealed, but what should have been an awkward moment between the woman and Zak in the bathroom is an oddly touching indication of what is missing from his life that the women seems to tacitly understand. And it is this generosity that helps give the lads perspective and moves them closer towards taking responsibility for their actions.

The is no escaping the inevitable coming-of-age conclusion to this story but Lanners handles this with the same restraint he applies to the rest of the film when he’s not having fun with the juvenile exploits of our tearaway leads. The humour is often black but never morose, just inappropriate and edgy, driven by the callow charisma of the kids and the crazy world they inhabit.

Whilst the boys sometimes veer towards contrived precociousness they generally carry themselves and behave like unruly teens do, but one can’t shake the feeling that despite their self-reliance and drive for complete independence and autonomy, they miss their mother and the safety net of having a caring adult to fall back on and offer them some guidance and protection.

Such keenly observed details applied to the makeup of the brothers and by extension to Dany since he has no parental security against Angel, goes a long way to their credibility as real people that despite their faults we can’t help but root for them. That most of the adults have either let them down or taken advantage of them shamefully exhibits the downside to being the product of one’s environment

As mentioned earlier, the three young leads are utterly engaging, individually and as a group, creating a believable and tight chemistry that sees them bouncing off each other so naturally and instinctively I wouldn’t be surprised if most of their scenes weren’t largely improvised. Coupled with the stunning photography of the Belgian countryside and you have an immersive experience of youthful hubris and bucolic wonder.   

The missing backstory of the mother is a huge gap in the narrative of The Giants, an otherwise enjoyable, redolent, and towering slice-of-life drama.