A feature debut of startling power, Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant is perhaps the most unabashedly Canadian film to play the Toronto International Film Festival, and one of its most affecting. Set in Northern Ontario cottage country – and eager to trumpet its very particular setting – the drama follows three young boys as they take those first tentative steps into adolescence. As the film makes its way from the Cannes Critics' Week program to TIFF, The Globe spoke with Cividino about his captivating and volatile coming-of-age tale.
Were you surprised to get into Cannes?
I didn't think we had much of a chance, and mostly treated it as a good artificial deadline. Then they came back quickly, saying that we'd been shortlisted for all three [programming] sections. So we had to squeeze months of editing into days and nights. When we got the final phone call that we'd been accepted, it was a huge relief – but a real visceral experience.
Has the pressure subsided now that you're heading to familiar territory with TIFF?
When you're unveiling it to the world at Cannes, there's a huge pressure-cooker environment. It felt like I was underwater every few minutes. But it comes in waves still – I can feel it building up around TIFF, because it's my hometown, and there's a sense of expectation about it. Going to Cannes, we were this little indie movie nobody heard of. Now, I feel the weight of it.
Some Canadian films will try to mask their homegrown roots. Here, it seems like you've gone out of your way to give a real sense of place: this is the Canadian landscape.
I'm a Canadian filmmaker, so when approaching subjects, thinking about how to make this more Canadian is totally part of my identity, sure, but to me, the setting of the film is incredibly important to the story as a whole. It's where I grew up, it's who I am, and I can't strip that location out of it. But nor would I plant extra flags or pour maple syrup on it to make it more Canadian.
Canadian filmmakers also seem to have a fondness for coming-of-age tales, though this seems to be a brutally honest version of that genre.
There's a tendency to get nostalgic and sanitize the energy of youth and oversimplify things and paint things with a very moralistic brush, and I definitely wanted to make a film that was unafraid of shining a light on what adolescent males can be like. But I'm not passing judgment or shying away from the ugliness and complexity of it, either.
I think some people will be shocked by what the boys say, but it struck me as being realistic: just kids messing with each other.
I think boys are often looked at being kind of wild and cruel, but without looking at the complexity of it and interpersonal dynamics, and how gender roles affect men. I wanted to live in that space. Even though the worst possible things come out of these boys' mouths, they're just parroting things they've heard before, but have never experienced. It's a one-upmanship in being offensive. It's youth.
Sleeping Giant screens Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. at the Winter Garden Theatre and Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox.