In Sleeping Giant, a young man is drawn into the influence of two other boys and suddenly finds himself navigating a strange new world. The first feature from from Canadian director Andrew Cividino, Sleeping Giant is a coming-of-age film, but one that refuses to see this stage through a gauzy lens of nostalgia. Instead, the film investigate the callous, yet banal violence and cruelty of id-driven teenagers. However, rather than being catastrophic, allegorical figures, Cividino’s characters have some heart in addition to their hurt, and we come to sympathize with them.
While visiting the lake with his parents for the summer, Adam (Jackson Martin), a sheltered, suburban boy, falls in with Nate and Riley (Nick Serino and Reece Moffett), two feral teenage cousins who are spending the summer with their permissive grandmother. Where exactly their parents are is never fully revealed, but we do learn that Riley’s father is no longer in the picture. Both are the type of boys parents might describe as “troubled” in hushed tones at a PTA meeting.
Nate and Riley’s world is a place with harsh rules, where respect is hard-won through battles and chest-thumping tests of will. Nate and Riley introduce Adam to cigarettes, drugs, booze, and crass sexual language. When they’re not buying marijuana or stealing beer, the cousins wrestle half-clothed on beaches, smash whatever they can find, and burn insects for the pure thrill of destruction. In these sequences, Cividino allows the camera to linger on the boys until the anger and frustration behind their behavior is revealed. Adam appears simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the cousins’ activities and often stands at a distance, his stature stiff and uncomfortable. Yet he soon begins to emulate these rituals at well, testing their potency.
When tensions mount over the affections of a girl, the boys seek increasingly violent outlets for their frustration. Their adventures lead them to a local drug dealer who lives in a trailer bedecked with lava lamps, string lights, and posters of busty women cradling bongs. He also happens to be “a legend,” according to Nate: the only person to have jumped from the top of the 120-foot rock formation known as Todd’s Cliff and lived to tell the tale. This bit of stoner lore, coupled with ominous low-angle shots of the looming cliff, make the film’s denouement apparent from early on. The plot hangs, so to speak, on Todd’s Cliff, and what will happen once we finally find ourselves at the top.
Sleeping Giant owes much of its strength to its adolescent leads. The boys give stirring performances, and their seemingly ad-libbed scenes lend a greater air of authenticity to the movie. We often feel as if we’re intruding on a real, testosterone-driven interactions between teenagers, who discuss everything from masturbating to failing math class. These unfiltered exchanges are as moving as they are discomfiting and all the more powerful as a result.
Cividino’s film arrives in the U.S. at an auspicious moment. Thinkpieces about toxic masculinity have proliferated in the wake of the Orlando Pulse shooting and the rise of Donald Trump, whose popularity breaks down along gendered lines. Cividino poignantly examines how boys become men, the messages they receive along the way, and how detrimental the constraints of some kinds masculinity can be, not only to society, but to young men just learning to express their desires and fears. These reasons alone may make Sleeping Giant worth seeing, although as a grittier than average coming-of-age tale, it may also help us reconcile with the darker parts of youth.