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Nate (Nick Serino), at the wheel, Riley (Reece Moffett) in the passenger seat, and Adam (Jackson Martin) in the back are shown in a scene from the film "Sleeping Giant," by Ontario-bred Andrew Cividino.

Aaron Yeger/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Outside on the terrace of the Canada Pavilion on the beach, the three teen actors from Sleeping Giant, the film from Toronto director Andrew Cividino in the Cannes Critics' Week program, are having lunch following the film's first screening.

They include Jackson Martin, who plays Adam, a sensitive middle-class kid spending his summer near Thunder Bay. With him are two first-time actors, cousins Reece Moffett and Nick Serino. I asked how the screening went.

"Amazing."

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"Incredible."

"When there were jokes intended for a few people, the right people laughed. When they were for everyone, everyone laughed."

"People were crying leaving the theatre, so it made a real emotional connection – so hopefully, this will go a little further."

As casually as the young cast accepts a success at Cannes, it's nothing compared to the extraordinary naturalness of their performances on screen, thanks to an unorthodox approach to shooting.

The title Sleeping Giant refers to the popular name for the Sibley Peninsula on Lake Superior, which resembles a man lying on his back. That's where Cividino, raised in Dundas, Ont., spent his summers hanging with the local kids.

Cividino says the film isn't autobiographical, although his outsider status paralleled that of shy summer visitor Adam, the tag-along buddy of local boys, cousins Riley (Moffett) and Nate (Serino), amiable hell-raisers who cliff-jump, steal beer and egg houses for fun. Eventually, the revelation of troubling secrets and a rivalry over a girl bring tensions to a boil.

Cividino, who graduated from Ryerson University's School of Image Arts in 2006, has a company that does corporate film work. He had made three short films, and in the summer of 2013 was preparing his first feature, determined to cast local boys.

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"I had grown up spending my summers here and I knew how these boys who felt at one with this land behaved and I felt there was no young actor on the planet I could put in that scenario who would not feel like a fish out of water." Sixteen-year-old Nick Serino got his grandmother to drive him to the open audition, and Cividino knew from his brash humour that they had the right guy for Nate (he auditioned for another part). Cividino asked him if he knew anyone else who might want a part and he suggested his cousin, Reece Moffett. Together they make a great duo, with Nick as the smart-aleck pusher, and Reece as his more sensitive pal. The cast was set, and then the film's financing fell through.

As a temporary salvage operation, Cividino made a short film, where he experimented with improvisation techniques to gain emotional depth of the performances.

"I felt we had lightning in a bottle with these two actors, and it had an expiry date because they were changing fast. When I compared the short to the written script, the results just felt much more intense and spontaneous, so I decided I had to trust that approach for the feature."

A year later, they were back, with newcomer Jackson Martin in the role of Adam. By the time the Sleeping Giant short won a youth prize in Locarno, Cividino and his crew were too busy shooting the feature to pick up their prize. When it showed at the Toronto International Film Festival last September (subsequently earning a spot on Canada's Top 10 list), he was already into postproduction.

With an average of four or five takes per scene over six weeks, the Sleeping Giant footage was, appropriately, outsized – a hefty 70 hours of material, more in line with a documentary than a drama. Cividino says he spent every day from October through to two weeks before the festival working with his editor, James Vandewater. "We watched those 70 hours more times than I can count, finding the moments and shaping the story, but we always knew we had something special."

He adds, using a metaphor well suited to this homegrown story from Northorn Ontario, "We had seen these performers in action, so it was just a case of clearing away the ore."

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