By Liam Lacey
There’s a dreamy Risky Business vibe to Keith Behrman’s serio-comedic Giant Little Ones, a high school coming-of-age drama about taking risks and finding yourself with a new sexual identity. Part of that similarity comes from the constant thrum of the synthesizer-dominated soundtrack as handsome, open faced Franky (Josh Wiggins) floats on his bicycle through wide streets past the homes of his comfortably suburban neighbourhood (shot in summer in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario).
Life seems mostly sweet for Franky. He has a hip, sympathetic single mom (Maria Bello), a bratty affectionate younger sister, Deanne (Olivia Scriven). His best friend and swim-team colleague is the handsome, strutting cool kid Ballas (Darren Mann). Franky also has a pretty, insecure girlfriend, ’Cil (Hailey Kittle), who can’t quite figure why Franky isn’t as avid as teen-aged boys are supposed to be.
There’s a sore point about his estranged dad (Kyle MacLachlan), who left mom and the family to live with another man. That becomes more pertinent about 20 minutes into the film, when an incident occurs on the night of Franky’s drunken 17th birthday. He wakes to discover his best friend going down on him. Whoah! We’re not in a Tom Cruise teen movie anymore.
Franky is confused but Ballas has a more toxic reaction. Scared for his reputation, and in a pre-emptive strike, he turns on his Franky, spreading the rumour that Franky was the one who initiated the sexual encounter. Franky’s first reaction is to rush over to his puzzled girlfriend’s house to try to confirm his heterosexuality.
Everyone is confused.
“I thought it was supposed to be socially acceptable these days to experiment,” says Mom, which more or less declares the intent of the film. In the contemporary teen world of school teams, classes and secret parties, life’s more complicated than the familiar okay-to-be-gay bromides suggest.
Giant Little Ones toggles between sometimes charmingly awkward comedy and scenes that feel overstuffed with social issues. We have, for example, the dilemma of a bullied gay kid on the swim team, who the insensitive coach says can shower alone. After his social fall, Franky is conveniently provided with an unlikely ally: a wise-cracking lab partner named Mouse (Niamh Wilson), who is potentially transitioning to being a boy.
A few scenes later, Franky connects with another kindred spirit (Taylor Hickson), a slut-shamed sexual assault victim. It’s as if, after Franky is dislodged from his comfortable perch as big man on campus, he discovers an improbable number of sympathetic fellow sexual pariahs. The sudden transitions in tone can be jarring. Shortly after Franky is subjected to a severe homophobic beating, we find ourselves in the strained cutesiness of a scene where Mouse wants to check out Franky’s penis.
Apart from a few eye-roll moments, Giant Little Ones is redeemed from coming across like a progressive after-school special by the authenticity of performances, particularly of the young actors and a refreshing open-endedness about the fluidity of sexual behaviour.
“I suggest you just pay attention to who you’re drawn to and not worry about what to call it at this point,” suggests Franky’s dad. Which sounds like wise advice, at any point.
Giant Little Ones. Written and directed by Keith Behrman. Starring Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann, Taylor Hickson, Maria Bello, Kyle McLachlan, Niamh Wilson and Hailey Kittle. Opens March 29 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Vancouver.