Andrew Cividino’s “Sleeping Giant” has a strong sense of place: Lake Superior. During a boring summer vacation in rural Ontario, young Adam (Jackson Martin) starts hanging around with two local boys, Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino), while attempting evermore reckless stunts. As Adam and his new friends allow their emotions to run riot, their experiences become increasingly intense and unpredictable – and with disastrous consequences.
Canscreen talked to writer-director Andrew Cividino at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival where “Sleeping Giant” screened after earlier festival dates in Cannes and Munich.
The film’s North American premiere takes place at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
What is it about Ontario specifically that had you setting your story about troubled teens on Lake Superior?
The location and the struggles of the boys connect in a few ways. From a tone perspective, there’s the idea that this is a landscape that, beneath the surface of beauty, there’s a menace and danger to it. And if you don’t respect that threat, it will come bubbling up from below. So I liked the idea of that happening to my characters.
What was it precisely about young boys on summer holiday that fed your film’s subterranean premise?
We’re never closer to our primal instincts than at that age. I wanted to get a sense from that setting of just how thin that veneer of civilized behaviour is, and that beneath it is not so much immoral as amoral behaviour, a kind of chaos with not a lot of structure to it. I felt like putting these in a state of nature would allow me to play visually and symbolically with their lives.
You’re also playing with the sheer recklessness of youth, without in the natural outdoors a safety net as might be found in the big city to catch them?
Yes, there’s all the bravado and pride and adrenaline-seeking side of youth, there’s definitely the potential for negative things to happen. And I know people in the community in which we shot die every year from jumping off cliffs, and yet there’s a cliff-jumping culture that I and others grew up with. There was no cliff that I’d rather not jump off of, to avoid feeling the shame of not jumping after my friends had jumped. There’s this weird one-upmanship where your pride and the potential harm don’t seem to figure as a balanced equation. You just have no choice, and so you end up doing stupid things.
Tell us about the three young boy characters, each of whom is different and yet feed into your coming-of-age storyline.
For me, these three characters I see as being on completely different trajectories, and there’s a point of intersection for them. Adam and Riley both want something from each other. Riley is drawn to the stability and the seeming normalcy of Adam’s middle-class existence. He’s got a father and mother figure in a complete family that Riley covets. And Adam has bubble-wrapped parents that are far too protective and don’t engage with or understand him. So Adam is drawn to the recklessness of the other two boys.
Nate is the third character and can come across as a jerk. But he’s the only character who shows true honesty. And even including the adults, he’s the only person in the film who knows exactly who he is and where he’s going in life and is comfortable with that. He’s already figured that out.
So his (Nate’s) cruelty is armour. He and Riley come from a difficult family situation. Riley’s response is to seek comfort, to which there’s a vulnerability. Nate deals with it in the complete opposite way, through sarcasm and cruelty.
So Adam, drawn to reckless boys like Nate and Riley, becomes evermore reckless himself to deal with his own coming-of-age insecurities.
He (Adam) kind of lives in a space where things happen to him a lot, and he’s a fairly passive character. So it takes a lot of hurt and sense of helplessness to jump-start a sense of agency within him. And he starts to act out and take control of his situation, but hasn’t figured out how to control that and the sense of consequences that might ripple out. That’s where the title came from – an awakening for Adam, the idea of coming to terms with the fact that he does have power.
The film climaxes with a cliff-jumping scene where Nate leaps not with fear but curious nonchalance. Why did you choose that motivation for his character?
This cliff they’re up on is virtually impossible to jump. And Nate really doesn’t think Riley will ever jump. So we end up with both boys playing chicken with each other. And Nate banks on knowing Riley and knowing he won’t jump and being able to shame him. But when they get up, Riley is too hurt and frustrated. He means it and will jump. By then Nate can’t talk him down. So he jumps with Riley because that’s how loyal he is, at the end of the day.
So Nate, despite his villainous facade, has an inner honour code?
He absolutely does. When you see him becoming more cruel during the film, Nate knows who he is, and Riley is the closest person for him. They really only have one another in their lives. And Riley is trying to spend time with this other family. Riley wants to experience a different future than the one Nate sees for both of them. So he’s losing his closest companion. That’s where a lot of the aggression comes from, towards Adam in particular.
You screened your film in Cannes as part of International Critics’ Week, in Munich and in Karlovy Vary. How have European audiences received it?
The audiences have been so far really great. It’s fun to sit with an audience for your film and experience how they shift as they respond to your material. They’ve responded well to the humour in the film. There’s a lot of story and character to talk about that’s quite serious, and I’m glad that’s what they’ve talked about. But they’ve also recognized the humour in the film.
The “Sleeping Giant” North American premiere takes place at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 15 at 9 p.m. at the Winter Garden Theatre. The second screening is on September 17 at 9 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.