Giant Little Ones takes place in a land of teens who are mostly acne-free and cosmetically near-perfect on the surface, but grappling with some deep issues just a few inches below that.
Burgeoning sexual identity, sexual peer pressure and the omniscient need to appear preserved in a sea of hormonal uncertainty are just a few of the concerns its characters are swept up in, which is nothing new for the teen drama whose permutations have been writhing since James Dean and Rebel Without A Cause some 60 years ago.
What is new, however, is that director Keith Behrman manages to make these seemingly commonplace tropes feel nuanced and genuine. Giant Little Ones doesn’t break new ground, but it carves out its own little tangent with strong acting and a modest reach.
Following an array of youngsters struggling with the various confidence levels of their sexuality, the film mostly focuses on Franky (Josh Wiggins) and best friend Ballas (Darren Mann). Seemingly the prototypical buddies, complete with good-natured rough housing when the mood calls for it and spending most of their extracurricular time together on the swim team, their relationship becomes fraught with tension one night after a party, when something happens between them.
It becomes evident that Ballas is the more insecure of the pair, afraid of the implications that may be fracturing his outwardly masculine life (and with beautiful girlfriend Kiana Madeira), which causes him to lash out at Franky in violent and toxic ways. The old mantra that solving a problem is to pretend one doesn’t exist becomes the guiding compass for Ballas.
Just as equally complex and confused is Franky, the more frequently persecuted of the two. Giant Little Ones essentially becomes a document of his personal sojourn to discover his true identity in a high-school world replete with disapproving glances and jocular pride. Forging a friendship with Ballas’ likewise outcast sister Natasha (Taylor Hickson) naturally doesn’t make things easier.
Not content to stay fixated on just the teens, Giant Little Ones’ most accomplished acting comes from veterans Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan as Franky’s divorced parents. Finding a new life for himself as gay man in a happy, healthy relationship, MacLachlan imbues each and every scene he’s in with understated grace and charisma. He understands the swirl of emotions clouding the brain of his son and the dialogue between the two feels like something lived-in and authentic.
Also written by Behrman, Giant Little Ones exerts a lot of energy on a host of characters. And while full understanding cannot be given to each one — such as the performance of Niamh Wilson as Mouse, one of Franky’s friends so content with her sexual identification that she wears a fake penis because she feels she should have been born with one — the film strikes at just enough emotional pull to keep it from spiraling out of focus. At times it’s messy. Other times it’s sharp.
The film doesn’t provide easy answers for any of its characters, which makes it far and away better than other films angled at the young adult/teen market that are content to homogenize their feelings or subsidize it in a dystopian universe. Here the stakes are real, and like the title, its young men and women constantly slip and fall down, only to pick themselves up again and face the giant complexities that await them in the future.
Giant Little Ones opens on Friday, March 15 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.