Arts·Queeries

Cinematic sex-ed: Giant Little Ones and why exploring teenage sexuality onscreen is vital

The provocative Canadian teen drama is part of a rising — and necessary — trend.

The provocative Canadian teen drama is part of a rising — and necessary — trend

Giant Little Ones. (Mongrel)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

If I'm being honest, I had very little expectation going into Keith Behrman's new film Giant Little Ones, which is opening in Canadian cinemas this weekend. I saw it initially when it premiered at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, and the driving force behind my curiosity was really this: there's a Canadian LGBTQ-themed film at TIFF that stars Kyle MacLachlan and Maria Bello that's...set in Sault Ste. Marie? I just wanted to see what that looked like.

As it turns out, while Giant Little Ones is LGBTQ-themed, takes place (vaguely) in Sault Ste. Marie and features MacLachlan and Bello (albeit in supporting roles), there is quite a bit more to it than that. The focus is on MacLachlan and Bello's characters' son Franky (played by a wonderful Josh Wiggins), who is struggling with his sexuality in the wake of a very eventful night of partying with his lifelong best friend, Ballas (Darren Mann). Not to give too much away, but basically: Ballas drunkenly initiates something with an equally wasted Franky, but instead of owning up to it, he decides to protect his alpha male image by spreading rumours that Franky had hit on him. Thus, the entire school is led to believe Franky is gay — something Franky isn't quite sure is true, but also isn't quite sure is false.

Adding to all this messiness is the fact that Franky has been estranged from his father because he somewhat recently left his mother for another man. That the narrative evolves to find Franky coming to terms with his father's sexuality through the questioning of his own could have so easily been mishandled, but — like the rest of Giant Little Ones — it's managed with bracing authenticity thanks to both Wiggins and MacLachlan's layered, award-worthy performances and Behrman's careful dialogue and direction.

Giant Little Ones. (Mongrel)

Talking to Behrman just before the film premiered at TIFF, he said that with MacLachlan's character of Franky's father, he wanted to show "an example of somebody whose identity had shifted, going from identifying as straight to coming out of the closet to you falling in love with a man."

"He takes the label of being gay and he's fine with that — but his life and his world shifts. So he basically embraces a new label and he's okay with it, although he no doubt undergoes resistance from his community. That was a contrast to Franky, who was [having] a label imposed on him — the same label — but he didn't feel comfortable taking on that label."

For Berhman, the film is "suggesting that we don't need to helm ourselves and each other in with labels — but also that, at the same time, labels can be very meaningful to people, especially marginalized people. If you have always grown up not fitting in some way, to find a name for yourself that empowers you is important. But like all words, they are useful, but they can be limiting too."

By delving deep into the complexity of what it feels like to be a sexual teen in 2019, Giant Little Ones feels like something of an antidote to last year's gay teen rom-com Love, Simon, which felt like it barely scratched the surface of what its characters were going through. Thankfully, though, Giant Little Ones is no outlier in this regard. Last week, this column noted two extraordinary new TV series that are bringing raw and thoughtful takes on the adolescent experience to screens: PEN15 and Sex Education. And then, of course, there are last year's Eighth Grade and Blockers, both exceptional films in terms of how they handle teenage sexuality (albeit in very different ways).

Now, I haven't been a teenager in over a decade (OK, fine, well over a decade). And while obviously so much has positively changed between then and now in terms of the acceptance of gender and sexual identities that divert from cisgender and/or heterosexual "norms," I'm not particularly certain that this has made life too much easier for teens trying to figure themselves out in 2019. Unfortunately, they are still trying to navigate their identities in a world where so often their governments and schools and families are not always guiding them in healthy directions.

Giant Little Ones. (Mongrel)

Which is why movies and series like Giant Little OnesSex Education and Eighth Grade matter so much — movies and series that notably are not created by teenagers, but by folks of my generation who have lived to tell the tale. Because we know how powerful these kinds of stories were to us when we were trying to figure it all out, and now it's time to pay it forward.

Giant Little Ones. Directed by Keith Behrman. Opens in Toronto and Vancouver on March 30th. www.mongrelmedia.com

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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