The title of the film Sleeping Giant refers to a piece of land sitting by Lake Superior, a beautiful locale of high ridges, green thickets and peaceful waters. These images haunt the film’s opening moments, but before we can truly appreciate the scenery, the film cuts to our three central characters. Of the three, there are two cousins, Nate and Riley (played by real life cousins Nick Serino and Reece Moffett), and a friend, Adam (Jackson Martin). The film immediately distinguishes between the three youths, setting them for a course they’re destined to play out. Nate easily stands out, he is the smallest but also the most vocal and abusive. In the opposite spectrum is Adam, who is shy and observant. Riley plays the most three-dimensional role of trying to balance his allure of Adam’s quaint, homely lifestyle and Nate’s rowdy, trouble-making shenanigans. What’s most surprising is how spontaneous this conflict feels while at the same time remaining tact and insightful.
All of us can certainly relate to bad memories of our youth, Sleeping Giant gives us that kind of memory the sort of gloss and flashiness you’d mostly find in music videos, but such imagery is never mistreated or used to excess by first time director Andrew Cividino. He allows us to experience several things at once, from a heightened sexual awareness of a young man, to acts of rebellion against prolonged apathy. The character Nate offers the kind of innate hubris that comes with being a kid, introduced in the opening scene as he plays on an undersized swing-set that looks as it could collapse at any second. This perfectly sets him up for the rest of the film as his childish enterprises seem destined to come around and bite him on the ass at any moment. Nate and his cousin Riley are loose cannons, the kind of kids that your parents hated seeing you hang out with. Adam on the other hand is dormant, someone Nate easily imposes his influence on. He uses his charisma to domineer and verbally abuse Adam. And while Nate may feel like he’s too much to endure, I can also confide that he is also one of the most genuinely funny characters in the film.
Perhaps what the film captures best are the truly disappointing revelations a teenager has growing up, ones that can profoundly alter our glowing perception of adulthood. In a quirky subplot, Adam discovers from Nate and Riley that his father has been having an affair with a local woman, who works at a fish market. We see how this disillusions Adam, how much more complicated his sexual identity becomes and how unappealing adulthood now looks to him. While he nailed Adam’s psychology, it’s unfortunate that Cividino never really gives us something compelling between the teen and his father. None of the problems that should arise are never really explored; very little guilt is expressed by the father and almost no resentment from the son is even implied, after the initial confrontation. Not long after being introduced, the entire subplot seems only to amount to fodder for a screwball comedy.
It’s funny how the characters Cidivino gives us, the kind that steal beer from local convenience stores, egg random houses and are the very definition of “white-trash,” can come across as tragic. Nate, despite his confidence, is almost naive in his idealism of youthful integrity. Particularly troubling is how he idolizes a local drug dealer, whose only accomplishment consists of jumping off a high cliff into Lake Superior, something that could have easily killed him. He refers to the man as a “legend.” It begs the question as to whether Nate finds this man-child truly admirable, or even if he maybe considers his callow, carefree approach to life appealing to his own childlike sensibilities and overall refusal to grow up. Whatever the reasoning, it’s clear that such a behavior comes at the price of Nate’s relationship with his cousin, Riley, who seems to gradually recede into the richer atmosphere of Adam’s family.
One of the truest but most unexplored elements of growing up is confusion, and not without reason. We have films about teen angst, depression, sadness, jealousy and sexuality, but what sort of narrative can one produce on confusion? It’s an unfilmable concept that is inexplicably conquered by Cidivino, whose complex vision is realized through bits and details, instead of big moments and forced conclusions. The film ends somberly with two characters staring into the dawning of adulthood, rather than the twilight of their childhoods. It’s a kind of subtly hopeful ending that is honest and sad and not seen too much in this genre.