Canadian writer-director Keith Behrman on Giant Little Ones, a teen film about the ambiguity of sexual identity and the way internalized homophobia is poison to everyone. This is an excerpt from the ebook The Canadian Cinema Yearbook which is available for purchase here.
Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones is one of the great teen movies of the decade — vibrant, fun, and moving, and everything changes so fast you hardly realise it. And yet writer-director Behrman also manages to tackle weighty issues without ever veering into afternoon special territory or getting didactic.
Everything seems to be going great for Franky (Josh Wiggins) who is about to turn 16: he’s inseparable from this best friend, Ballas, bonded to his swim team, and the hottest girl in school, Priscilla (Hailie Kittle), not only likes him but is actively trying to have sex with him. The film moves at such a breakneck speed that it’s easy to miss — or ignore — all the beats indicating something isn’t quite right: Franky is avoiding his newly out father (Kyle MacLachlan), concerned about his lonely single mother (Maria Bello), idly standing by while homophobic bullying happens, and unable to quite talk to Natasha (Taylor Hickson), Ballas’ sister for whom Franky clearly carries a torch.
Those cracks in the façade become impossible to ignore after a sleepover with Ballas turns into a sexual encounter. We hear more than we see in this shadowy scene of fumbling confusion, but Ballas leaves in a hurry, completely shuts down when Franky tries to talk to him, and then spreads rumours about what happened in an attempt to reinforce his own heterosexual reputation. As Franky becomes alienated, he and we, start to understand the casual homophobia that was rampant in the culture — pushing Franky himself to conflate his anger about his parents’ divorce with his feelings about his father being gay.
Behrman handles this difficult material with a light touch, helped by focusing on a central character who is ultimately very sensitive and kind-hearted — the kind of teenage boy we rarely get to see on film. By making Franky’s and Ballas’ ambiguous experience public knowledge, Behrman externalizes the murky waters of teenage sexuality: suddenly, everyone is discussing the event, and Franky feels like he has to declare his identity which is not yet fully formed.
Behrman depicts all of the relationships in the film with nuance and sensitivity. There’s the immature way that the parents’ handle the bullying — talking around the issue of blame rather than acknowledging that being a bystander is part of the problem. And yet there’s also great maturity and sensitivity in the way those same parents deal with Franky’s burgeoning relationship with Natasha whose past trauma never feels like a layered on plot point. Even more impressively, the film’s sex scenes are so raw, intimate, and real — a rarity generally, but especially in stories about young people.
Back at TIFF, I talked to Behrman about bringing this nuanced story to life, the amazing young actors he found, and how he managed the films nuanced ambiguity.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get the idea for the film?
Keith Behrman: About five years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about when several young kids in Canada had killed themselves, just before the “It Gets Better” campaign started. We were really disheartened by that. He suggested I should make a film about it. I didn’t want to make a film about a kid who kills himself. That was the end of the conversation. That night, I had a dream: this kid was in a kitchen, talking to his mom. The next day, I started writing that, and it became the script.
7R: You keep Franky’s sexuality ambiguous, and it’s not fully resolved at the end. But it’s very ambiguous at the beginning because it is ambiguous to him. How did you think about how to do that?
Keith Behrman: We embraced the ambiguity rather than seeing it as a problem. The ambiguity would have people thinking and making assumptions, and realize those assumptions are not correct, and not knowing for sure what is going on, and wondering how that would be resolved. At the end, it’s not explained. It’s still left a bit open.
The fact that Franky is able to be with that ambiguity himself, where he doesn’t need to put a label to his experience or who he is, despite the fact other people want to, is really the core of the film. I think human beings are so vastly layered and complex and nuanced and varied. I was really interested in celebrating that and making a film that depicted that we don’t have to define ourselves or occupy the labels and boxes that get put on us. Labels can be helpful but can also be limiting in what we can experience of ourselves.
7R: I really liked the way that Franky’s parents’ divorce means that all kinds of things become conflated — is he just angry at his dad for not being there, or for hurting his mom? And that gets conflated with homophobia.
Keith Behrman: When I was writing the script, at first, there was no dad. His parents split up, and we didn’t know why. Then, I decided to include the dad, and at one point, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if his dad came out gay and that broke the family apart?” That seemed like a really exciting idea.
The fact that his father did come out, and was totally OK with it, and ventured on a new life — it was an example of someone who was shifting their identity and shifting their label. There was a flexibility, but he was also very clear about who he was now, which offsets the ambiguity that Franky is undergoing.
But you’re right: you don’t know what he’s upset about it. Is he freaked out because his dad came out and is now living with a man, or is he angry because Dad broke the family up? I think, probably, it’s both.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.