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.
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 Berhman (KB): 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?
KB: 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.
KB: 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.
7R: I really liked the sex scenes in the film. They’re not explicit, but they are very emotional and felt real. What is the process of how you conceived, wrote, and directed those scenes?
KB: With the more mysterious sex scene, I always knew I wanted it to be in the dark and just see some big shapes. I knew I wanted to rely on sound mostly for that. We really used the sound in that sex scene so the audience doesn’t really know who’s doing what; you don’t know what really happened until the end, and then it gets revealed; it’s a bit of a surprise. It was dark and mysterious, just the way it is for the people involved in it. It comes out of nowhere. In some sense, they are in this unconscious space themselves.
With Franky and Natasha in the band stand, that was meant to always be a combination of hot young sexuality — they are reuniting after not being together for a while — but I also really wanted it to be tender and real. He makes this mess, and it’s very real and kind of funny.
I think they did a great job. They are so good. They just did that. It wasn’t a huge directing feat. It was really just casting Josh because he is sensitive and very smart and very aware. He was just the right person.
7R: When you are shooting the more intimate scenes — from sexual intimacy to conversations about difficult subjects — a lot of that happens in the shadows or at night. And then it was a completely different dynamic during the daylight. How did you think about that interplay of light and dark?
KB: The honest answer is I didn’t. When I write something and then direct it, it’s a bit hard to separate those two worlds. If you get a script, and you haven’t been inside the writer’s mind, I think you start to consciously imagine the film, whereas when you are writing, it is all so subconscious and unconscious.
Often, I’m editing the film, or I watch it, or even years later, I go, “Oh, that’s why that moment happened there; it connects to this moment here” — things I wasn’t even aware of.
You are right: there are a lot of intimate conversations that happen at night. There’s some in the daytime, too, but I never consciously did that. In the script, it says night, and it’s all in the script. It’s just amazing unconscious creativity.
7R: Even the sex scene between Natasha and Franky that happens at the band stand at the park, there’s a lot of shadows, and it’s happening in the rain.
KB: That’s just what happened. That scene was meant to be outside on the grass. I had this idea of having them on this long grass and the wind to be blowing the grass as they are in there, all by this lake. On the day, it was going to rain at four o’clock. We were up on that hill where they have the big conversation, and they ride their bikes down.
We saw the clouds coming in, getting windier, and it started raining. We were going to push it to another day, and then Allison, the producer, said, “What about that bandstand over there?” I was like, “Yeah, let’s try it!” So we went over there, looked around, and liked it. It ended up being a fantastic location. I love that kind of stuff — never planned.
7R: When Natasha and Franky are biking together and then inside the park, there are all these wides of the two of them and the landscape. There was a lot of romanticism to that.
KB: Yeah, during that hilltop scene where they were having that big conversation, we were very aware of wanting to get those nice wide shots where you see the environment and all those trees. That’s when the storm is coming, and the trees are really blowing, and it really works nicely for what their conversation is about.
Those two have a real romantic love and appreciation for each other, and they reflect each other. Especially since this thing happened to her, she became isolated. They both know what it’s like to be isolated and lonely and rejected. I think they come together in a really lovely, sweet way.
The film was shot in Sault Ste. Marie and that impacted how the film looks: there’s so much green up there. We wanted it to feel alive and vital, full of life and full of light, with a sense of vibrancy and teenage energy.
7R: At the beginning of the film, Franky spends a lot of time with his best friend, Ballas. He seems almost carefree, but there’s some uncertainty; it’s fun, but there’s a bit of tension. In the middle section, he starts getting bullied and alienated; it slows a bit, and it feels a bit darker. And then, as soon as he shaves his head, the film becomes really joyous. How did you think about the changing tone of the film?
KB: I wanted the film to be like a pop song: it has all this energy, immediately grabs your attention, and pulls you in for this ride, unsuspectingly, the way a good pop song can. As you’re absorbed in the song, suddenly, it has a little shift, and you realize there’s actually a lot going on here. It leaves you with something that you weren’t expecting.
We knew we wanted the beginning to be really fast and high energy and fun — really capture that sense of 17-year-old life and birthday parties. But as it gets more troublesome, and Franky is alienated, then it naturally slows down and goes more introspective. I never really thought about it, but when he does shave his head, there’s resolution around it. It does become more open and joyous. The ending is meant to have a sense of joy.
7R: It’s interesting you say you thought about it as a pop song because I really love the use of music and the score and how you meld that with the sound. How did you think about the sound in the film and pulling in music?
KB: I think a lot about sound when I’m writing. I hear sounds, and I’m very aware of wanting to use very subtle sounds at times to offset the drama that is going on — things like wind and birds chirping and little creaking floors.
Before we started shooting, the DP, myself, the producers, and the editors — we all started making Spotify lists of songs we thought seemed appropriate to the film, and we shared them and listened to it. The editor, when she was assembling, started pulling from there.
We were able to get Chris Douridas as our music supervisor. He’s from Los Angeles and KRCW, which is a radio station there. He’s got an incredible background in music and film soundtracks. He liked the film a lot, and he provided a lot of interesting options. We listened to lots of stuff. He knew what our temp track was, and he was trying to reflect that and bring in new ideas. It was a really fun process. By the end, we had a pretty cool soundtrack.
7R: You have so many wonderful young actors in the film, especially Taylor Hickson, who plays Natasha, and Hailey Kittle, who plays Priscilla. What was the process for finding all these great actors?
KB: Natasha has gone through a very difficult situation which has given her a depth. Even before that, she probably was a much more outgoing person and a little bit of a renegade. Priscilla is much more concerned about her appearance and how people perceive her and more enamoured by the idea of romance and boyfriends.
We spent a fair bit of time casting. It was just finding the actors who embodied that, and Hailey Kittle who played Priscilla captured it so wonderfully. She’s very good in that character. She plays that character with a sense of timidness and naivety, but also a layer of strength, too, which is what is special about that character and special about that performance.
Taylor, who plays Natasha, has a real capacity for embodying that vivacious, strong, whimsical nature. She did a great job. Taylor Hickson is from Vancouver. We found her by doing sessions in Vancouver, and she stood out, even from the self-tape, as really spectacular and good for the role. Our casting director provided us with a bunch of tapes, and there are a lot of young, talented people. Then we met with them and had conversations and did some work with them in the auditions and found the ones who can adapt to direction and have the right sense and right energy.