It's summertime. Brothers Seth (Martin Nissen) and Zac (Zacharie Chasseriaud) have again been left to fend for themselves by their neglectful mother at the family's cottage in the verdant and isolated Luxembourg countryside. Just like every holiday before, they've resigned themselves to another mundane summer, but things shift dramatically after they strike up a friendship with local kid Danny (Paul Bartel), and the most perilous - and greatest - journey of their lives begins. Together, as the boys scavenge for food, steal their grandfather's car and pursue harebrained schemes to make money, they find their bravado repeatedly punctured by the rigours of an adult world they cannot comprehend.

French coming-of-age tale ranks among the genre's best.

FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: Director Bouli Lanners extols some evocative and deliberately serene imagery in the opening moments of The Giants. Shots of lush, green pastures of long grass sway in the breeze as a young boy stares into the blue sky, the potential of what lays before him on this perfect summer’s day filling his head. The entire setting is too perfect; it can’t possibly be so idyllic.

It’s not, but just how imperfect it gets for brothers Seth (Martin Nissen) and Zak (Zacharie Chasseriaud) and their friend Danny (Paul Bartel) makes for one of the darkest, yet most enjoyable, coming-of-age journeys I’ve seen. It ranks among the genre’s best, alongside Stand by Me (1986), Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Lord of the Flies (1963).

From the peaceful opening sequence, things unravel for 16-year-old Seth and 13-¾-year-old Zak after they start their old man’s dilapidated car and find his gun. Collecting Danny, they secure some dope from local dealer Beef (Didier Toupy) and take to the marshlands to get wasted by a campfire. Their talk is bawdy (much of the film wallows lovingly in the delirium of teenage crudity) but there is also a sadness in their solitude, especially for Zak, who still lives in hope that his mother will return and defends her honour against Seth’s increasingly bitter outbursts.

As money fritters away, the three lads enter into a business deal with Beef that’s destined for disaster. The playfulness of a life left alone dissipates when the three lads are faced with surviving by their own means against the constant threat of Beef’s henchman/Danny’s brother, violent reprobate Angel (Karim Leklou, doing 'unhinged’ supremely well). A brief and bittersweet interlude comes in the form of the angelic Rosa ('70s beauty Marthe Keller, still stunning), a local woman who clothes and feeds them at the lowest ebb in their misadventures.

The film’s success rides on the soulful faces and best-friend chemistry of its three young stars. Nissen, his downwards smile and large eyes reminiscent of a young John Cusack, provides a wise-beyond-his-years edginess as Zak, who’s contemplating the alarming possibility of a life on the streets. As Danny, Bartel appears the oldest but, as the victim of Angel’s rage, is the quietest and least developed intellectually. If a star does emerge, it is Zacharie Chasseriaud, who provides a natural, open performance of tremendous insight as Zak and is utterly compelling to watch.

The laughs come almost in spite of the film’s trajectory and character development. The boys take to breaking and entering to survive, yet their criminality pales next to the joie de vivre they display while running amok in their purloined abode; they take aim at grazing ducks to test their mettle with the gun, but so bumbling are their efforts that empathy shifts from the targeted birds back to the hapless hunters almost instantly. Scenes devoid of humour are played with an honest intensity, too.

Lanners, a veteran character actor turned filmmaker, also approaches greatness in his crafting of a sublimely cinematic work, despite the film being essentially a three-hand character piece. His collaboration with cinematographer Jean-Paul de Zaetijd (returning to work with Lanners after 2008’s festival-hit, Eldorado) produces stunning images of the Belgium countryside. And the often wordless exchanges between the boys, expertly edited by Ewin Ryckaert, maximises the performances and rapport that Lanners clearly had with the young cast.


1 hour 24 min
In Cinemas 01 November 2012,