The first thing I told director Andrew Cividino when I got him on the phone to talk about his debut film, Sleeping Giant, was how accurate it was. While his film was set in Thunder Bay “cottage country” and my experiences growing up were in Lac Saint-Jean, it nevertheless captures a pubescent ennui in a particular setting that I had never seen conveyed this well before. It’s the daily lives of teenagers who aren’t necessarily old enough to drive, too young to pull off drinking without getting excessively sloppy, too poor to smoke weed all the time, forced to hang out with whoever the “kids their age” are and for whom the concept of playing outside has mostly morphed into destroying things or attempting foolish, life-threatening stunts. As it turns out, I wasn’t the first to bring this up.
“I haven’t met or talked to anyone who grew up in Quebec,” explains Cividino, “but I’ve talked to people from Arkansas or wherever, and it seems like what I thought was the most specific experience I had is actually, strangely, what others go through everywhere. I don’t know what it is — maybe it’s rural North America in particular — but it’s those sort of long summers, and I think particularly meeting certain kinds of kids and the interactions that that brings in those stages of adolescence.”Adam (Jackson Martin) and his parents are spending the summer in a new cottage on the shores of Lake Superior. Sort of a late bloomer, Adam befriends Nate (Nick Serino) and his more outgoing, jock-y cousin Riley (Reece Moffett). Sensitive and sheltered, Adam is an odd fit for the social circle but nevertheless winds up spending most of his days wasting time with them: they destroy things, hang out at the arcade, commit petty theft, smoke some weed with a skeezy local dealer and fantasize about jumping off a large cliff out in the lake — a feat accomplished by only two people, one of whom died doing it.
Somewhat autobiographical, the film stars a cast of nonprofessionals who came with some of their own background to the film: Serino and Moffett are actually cousins, and their grandmother in the film is played by their own grandmother. “The resulting performances and characters that we ended up with were a mix between the original script that I’d written and what the actors were able to bring to their characters,” says Cividino. “We had the script and all of the character arcs written, and we had to be faithful to that because otherwise the whole thing would sort of fall apart. At the same time, we really worked to find a process in which they could bring their own voices to it. We would rehearse in order to just bring out their own voices — we would be able to pull certain lines or certain reactions here and there and workshop with that.”
Perhaps the most autobiographical aspect of the film is the locations; Cividino tried as much as possible to shoot in places that he knew, though familiarity doesn’t necessarily translate logistically. “I specifically wrote in these locations that I had been to as a kid myself, but you don’t really think of the feasibility of getting a film crew to the top of a 100-foot cliff on a remote island in the middle of the biggest lake in the world,” he laughs. “The actual logistical challenge of making the film was quite real. It was during our last week that we had to shoot the climactic scene of the film on this island and three days in a row we were turned away in the morning because the waves were too big. We had to make the call to come back to shore and figure out what else we had to shoot. We constantly had to deal with that, but it also felt like summer camp. We were all living in cottages along the beach. The crew had all travelled up to Thunder Bay and were living there, so in that sense it was very special to me.”
I’m always curious to hear about the reaction that non-actors have seeing the final product of a process that they were essentially learning on the fly. “All three of the boys sat right in front of me at Cannes,” says Cividino. “It was really fun to watch them watch it for the first time. I was so nervous about that screening, it was really calming to see — I’d seen it a million times, so to kind of hold it on them and watch them turn to each other and smile and love it… It was a really great experience.” ■
Sleeping Giant opens on Friday, April 15. Watch the trailer here: