Review: Sleeping Giant
By John Corrado
★★★★ (out of 4)
A Canadian coming of age drama shot in and around Thunder Bay, Sleeping Giant is a small film that leaves a big impact in its searing exploration of the long buried feelings that are awoken in the throes of youth. Already landing a spot on my top ten list for last year after becoming a sensation on the festival circuit, this one hit me like a ton of bricks.
Adapting his own short film of the same name to feature length, director Andrew Cividino has crafted an assured and richly textured debut. Like a rougher older cousin to Stand By Me, the film authentically captures all the little moments and unexpected drama of teenage rivalry, against the backdrop of a seemingly endless summer in Northern Ontario.
The film follows Riley (Reece Moffett) and his cousin Nate (Nick Serino), who are spending the summer hanging out in their small cottage community on Lake Superior, where they live with their grandmother (Rita Serino). The quiet and sensitive Adam (Jackson Martin) is tagging along, a city kid who has little in common with the two working class boys aside from proximity, vacationing there for the summer with his mom (Larraine Philp) and trying to be cool dad (David Disher).
The three bored and restless teenagers hang out, goofing off and causing trouble in equal measure, as the brash working class Nate takes to relentlessly bullying the seemingly more privileged Adam, with Riley acting as a sort of mediator between them. But the weight of jealousy and various family problems, including arguments around Adam’s close female friend Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher), as well as the realization that his father is having an affair, lead to tested friendships and make things increasingly volatile between them.
There is a palpable air of summer heat that is felt throughout Sleeping Giant, as the film realistically depicts the explosive fireworks that can happen when teenagers are left to spend a bored summer just hanging out. Andrew Cividino reportedly shot over seventy hours of footage, something more common in documentaries than dramatic features, leaving ample room for the young actors to improvise, which adds a gritty authenticity to the film. Quick cut montages of the characters hanging out take on a music video feel, as the excellent soundtrack courtesy of indie rock band Bruce Peninsula blasts us into the world of the film and ups the sense of atmosphere, filled with percussive beats and almost tribal chants.
Built around a trio of compellingly written characters, Sleeping Giant is a searing study of jealously, masculine rivalry and first crushes, with a few subtly handled hints of homosexuality lingering beneath the surface, allowing us to question where Adam’s attraction really lies. The giant of the title comes to represent many things throughout the story, a mounting obstacle in their lives, that is visualized by the towering cliff side that becomes the point of an ongoing dare. These teenage protagonists are allowed to become completely believable in their intentions and constant attempts to prove their young masculinity, even as the story turns increasingly dark.
Nick Serino emerges like a true breakout star, having already won a Canadian Screen Award and many critical accolades for this role, with his explosive performance often serving as the driving force behind the film. Although a first time actor who found the role through an open casting call posted on Kijiji, he commands the screen in a role that is even more impressive for the way that he is able to make us feel genuine sympathy for his bullying and often overbearing character in the last act.
There is a natural chemistry between Nick Serino and Reece Moffett, who also happen to be cousins in real life. Rita Serino, their actual grandmother who reportedly got the role after driving Nick to the audition, had never acted onscreen before but handles her brief role exceptionally well, especially in a gutting dramatic moment near the end. The only previously established actor of the central trio, Jackson Martin gives an affectingly subdued performance, the camera often lingering on his face, and revealing much of his character’s intentions through unspoken reaction shots.
Beautifully filmed, brilliantly edited, and anchored by impressively naturalistic performances, Sleeping Giant is an absolutely incredible coming of age drama. It’s a film that works because it feels dangerous, perfectly capturing the youthful feeling that things are going to last forever, and the shocking moment when you realize that they’re not, building with propulsive energy towards a dark and blindingly powerful crescendo. The result is a stunning small gem that lingers in the mind long afterwards, and ranks as one of the finest films our country has ever produced.
Footnote: A month after seeing Sleeping Giant at TIFF, I had the pleasure of casting and working with Jackson Martin on Before We Fall, a film that I also produced and acted in. Exploring themes of teen depression and gender identity, it’s currently in post-production, and was written and directed by my sibling Erin Corrado. More information on the project can be found right here.