Giant Little Ones isn’t the first teen movie to realise that being openly gay in high school is a waking nightmare – but it is one of the rare few that lets its character mature without ever offering a neat conclusion that he wouldn’t be afforded in real life. The best way of describing writer/director Keith Behrman’s film is a grittier Canadian cousin of Love, Simon; a film about the all encompassing hell of being in the closet, even if there are more people in your life who would accept you than ones who wouldn’t. Of course, there’s no romance here, but as a coming of age story, it treads a similar emotional path even if its approach to the subject matter is far less idealised.
Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins) is a popular high school boy who has it all; a place on the swimming team, a large group of friends, and a girlfriend who he’s planning on losing his virginity to on the night of his 17th birthday. But when his party ends early, he and his best friend Ballas (Darren Mann) get into a fight at a convenience store, and flee back to Franky’s house where, in the middle of the night, they get intimate with each other. Immediately afterwards, Ballas becomes more outwardly homophobic and hostile towards a friend who isn’t even sure of his sexuality. He starts dating Ballas’ sister Natasha (Taylor Hickson), but his earnest feelings for her clash with a confusion as to who he is – and when his openly gay dad (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to give him life advice, he only becomes less sure of himself.
In an interview with The Film Stage, Berhman spoke at length about how it was a very deliberate decision to not to clarify his protagonist’s sexuality. He has said that the concept of labels can be very limiting, especially as the concept of more fluid sexuality is becoming more common and accepted among younger people – even if in this film, the acceptance in most quarters is countered by the toxic antagonism of a vocal few. Just a year after Love, Simon brought the idea of a gay teen romance into the mainstream, Giant Little Ones is going one step further in its attempt to dismantle the very notion of defining sexuality by labels altogether. Franky starts being defensive when others label him as gay initially, but by the end, he’s at peace with being perceived this way, even if his sexual preferences are positioned elsewhere on the Kinsey scale.
For a seemingly undemanding teen drama, there are lots of weighty themes at play here. It’s to the director’s credit that this never feels overwhelming, and only becomes overly apparent when analysing after viewing. A sexually fluid coming out story is married with a study on toxic masculinity in high school, the nature of consent, and side characters who go from a lesbian best friend who wears a tube sock beneath her pants at all times because she likes the feeling of having a penis, to a character who eventually realises she may be asexual. They add a richness and texture to the central drama, colouring over any conventional storytelling beats in the way they casually discuss issues seldom given the time of day in cinema, let alone teen oriented cinema.
But despite these contemporary issues, in the same interview Berhman discussed how he didn’t need to do as much research as planned as times hadn’t changed so much. Canada may be painted as one of the most liberal countries on earth, but there is still an undercurrent of homophobic animosity in schools; the threat to Franky’s safety is established when he sees one of his openly gay teammates on the swim team bullied, an incident that leads to the segregation of the entire team in the changing rooms. For all the progress in terms of tackling the subject matter, there’s nothing refreshing about the still accurate portrayal of an education system with one foot firmly in the past, unsure of how to deal with children that don’t conform to societal norms, and have no idea how to reconcile these differences with the attributes of their classmates.
Giant Little Ones may seem like its treading familiar ground, but after watching, it becomes clear that it strays from the conventional path more than you’d expect, handled with an even handedness rarely present in this most melodramatic of genres: the teen movie. Although describing it as such may be detrimental. After all, like its protagonist, the film thrives because it doesn’t conform to a simple label.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Keith Behrman