Director Keith Behrman

Keith Behrman sounds nervous, and it’s little wonder why. His new film Giant Little Ones has its world premiere on September 9 at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. The film follows two Canadian high school boys who have everything: popularity, good looks, wealth, pretty girlfriends and star spots on the school swim team. An encounter after a late-night party, however, tests the bounds of their friendship and wreaks havoc on their lives. But exactly what did happen? Giant Little Ones kept us guessing with a story that asks deep questions about sexuality and our most hidden selves. The movie features outstanding performances from leads Darren Mann (Mean Dreams) and Josh Wiggins (Wayward Pines), as well as powerful supporting turns from Taylor Hickson (Deadpool) and Kyle Maclachlan (Twin Peaks).

We caught up with writer/director Behrman not long after a special screening of the film to chat about the movie, the cast, and impressions of life.

First, congratulations on the film. I thought it was terrific. I was really taken off guard by the beauty of it. This is your first narrative feature in more than 15 years. What took you so long? Where did this story come from?

After I made my first feature film Flower & Garnet back in 2002—it played at TIFF, played some major festivals, and won a pretty significant award for Best First Feature that year. After that, I did some work in television, but I went through a kind of weird period where I think on some level I wasn’t aware. I think all the things I imagined might happen after I made a “successful” feature…I think that after that I thought things would be different, and they weren’t.

How so? What specifically do you mean by that?

What I mean by that is that I thought all my personal baggage—wanting to be understood, wanting to be appreciated, wanting to be recognized, to be loved—all that stuff we carry around with us, it was all still there. And I wasn’t really conscious of it at the time, but I went through an interesting period where I kind of withdrew. And at the same time, I became interested in yoga and meditation, and I spent two years really focusing on that. I spent two years traveling, living at ashrams and monasteries and doing long retreats and studying meditation.

That makes a certain amount of sense, because I think that the film obviously is something that deals with introspection as a theme. Ultimately though—and I thought this was really intriguing—I see it as a film about ambiguity and the frustration that ambiguous relationships cause each other, and the frustration that the ambiguity of our own feelings can cause us. Ballas, and Frankie, particularly, has to confront himself and decide how he feels about everyone in his life. For one, that leads to rage. For the other that leads to some self destructive behaviors. For you then, what is it about our need to confront the ambiguities in our lives, our relationships, and within ourselves that is so painful?

To me, I don’t think ambiguity is necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a reality. And I think that if we can embrace the ambiguity, and just be with it, it offers the option for exploration. I think you’re totally right, the ambiguity with Ballas, he retreats from it and becomes angry and violent. With Frankie, I think he’s actually kind of ok with ambiguity, and if wasn’t for everyone forcing a label on him, I think he would have moved through the whole thing quite smoothly. I think we, as human beings—and all of life—is just really varied and complex and rich and multi-faceted, but we don’t really allow ourselves to experience ourselves in any kind of fullness. We fragment and we segregate aspects of ourselves, and do the same to other people who aren’t the same as us.

Darren Mann

That’s good segueway—there is a same-sex encounter in the film. For the sake of this interview, I don’t want to give the specifics away, but by the time the credits roll, we know which character initiated it and, more or less, how he feels about it. The other character doesn’t really seem to have liked it, but says it felt ok at the time. That’s not exactly an endorsement, or a rejection either. So I suppose the question becomes is the character in question bisexual, or does this speak to the nature of all our sexualities being somewhat amorphous at a certain point in our lives?

Well that’s my feeling. I can’t speak for other people, but I think that, you know…it’s so tough, because it’s such a personal experience for everyone—their sexuality. But I think that…these borders and these labels we have for each other can be porous. And I think, especially when you’re young, though not necessarily only when you’re young, you have a lot of curiosity about what lies beyond the edges, and what lies in the deeper, unexplored regions of ourselves. And again, because there’s so much homophobia, and because there are so many negative impressions around it in our culture—being with the same sex, that I think that automatically, in a weird way, creates this subverted, submerged curiosity. If you say to someone “you can’t do that,” then they’re going to be curious. And I think we all know that people have curiosity about the same sex, whether they identify as straight or not.

There’s a mystique about it, especially since the time Dr. Kinsey basically ruled that everyone is on a sexual spectrum, that we’re all bisexual to some degree.

And I’ve looked into studies, famously, that show people—young men—desire, fantasize and think about that. So I don’t know, I men they’re young, they’re having a great time, they’re very close, they’ve been partying, they crash in the same bed and it happens, ya know? Again, I think in that moment [spoiler redacted] is ok with it, and he would have opened to the experience. And had he had his way, they would have just talked about it and been ok with it, and who knows what would have happened. So the bisexual thing—I wouldn’t necessarily call him bi. I understand that labels are really important and especially important for people who have been marginalized to say “this is who I am.” But I also think there’s some value to let yourself experience some things without having to label it, just to see what’s there.

Josh Wiggins (right) with Darren Mann

When you’re dealing with these kinds of ambiguities, that also makes the material very challenging for the actors. As a director, that could pose huge challenges when it comes to younger performers who are maybe not that experienced. For you, how did you get these young actors to find their characters with such sensitivity? Because your young cast is very, very impressive…

They’re great. Well, it has a lot to do with just casting right. Honestly, it was not a lot of hard work to get them to do what they did. It was more about finding the right people. So Josh Wiggins (Frankie) we knew because he was in a previous film called Mean Dreams. And [producer Allison Black] had a relationship with him, and we knew that he was talented and special, and very sensitive and very observant. So we offered him the role at the very beginning. But then finding the guy that plays Ballas, Darren Mann, was actually much trickier because we needed to find someone who, on the outside, could have all that masculine bravado and appear very secure, but who on the inside is very insecure. Darren’s fantastic in that he can be both hard and then he can soft at the same time, just under the surface. In other words, he so could have easily been played one-dimensionally, but he didn’t do that, which I was honestly very happy about. They’re talented young actors. They get it. And they really worked long and hard to do it.

That’s fantastic, and that’s really lucky too, at the same time. So the second part of my question: you also mentioned internalized homophobia. There’s so much talk about that right now—the idea of toxic masculinity both inside and outside the queer community. I think it’s fair to say both of those elements play a role in this story. That’s particularly compelling too, between Frankie and Ray (Frankie’s Dad, played by Kyle MacLachlan). Ray leaves his family for another man, and you’re never quite sure: is Frankie upset because he feels abandoned by his dad, or because his dad is gay? How is it then, that attitudes toward gay people…have changed so much, but there’s still all this homophobia everywhere? Even in a world where kids grow up with gay parents, it still dictates so much of their actions.

You know I started writing this just about five years ago, and it was as at a time before the “It Gets Better” campaign had started. And I remember seeing reports in the news about kids who were committing suicide in Canada. There were like three or four of them in a month, high school kids. And I just thought that was so heartbreaking. I was talking to a friend about it and said we should make a film about it, but I didn’t want to make a film about a kid killing himself, that’s for sure. But then that night I had a dream—going back to what I was saying earlier about being at the end of a very long-term retreat, where I knew I going to end that phase of my life—I had a dream. And I heard this voice. And I started writing it, and that became the script.

Shades of Coleridge writing Kublai Khan there. It’s scary how the unconscious can work, but then again, given the nature of the film, that makes a certain amount of sense.

What I’m trying to get at is when we were developing the film, it was at a time where it seemed like things were changing so much. The school curriculum was changing, and kids were talking about it and coming out and saying “who cares what anybody calls you.” And I thought maybe the film’s going to be irrelevant! So I pictured myself making the film and everyone going “yeah, what’s the problem?” So he had sex with a friend? Whatever. And now, it’s weird, because it seems like it’s kind of reversing itself, you know, with everything that’s happening in American politics. Even provincially here in Canada, in Ontario we have new premier who scrapped curriculum that included anything about same-sexuality. So, it’s just weird that there seems to be this opening and blossoming of acceptance, and at the same time there’s this tense, rigid homophobia and fear of “the other.” I guess, to answer the question, it’s because people—our brains tend to seek similarity, and because we’re scared of the unknown. I think that’s what it comes down to: we’re scared of the unknown. So no one is more unknown than another person, especially if they’re doing things different from we do. And we’re scared of the unknown aspects of ourselves. I would love for this film, if anything, to make people go “oh, I’m not afraid of what’s different.”

The character of Mouse is, I think, my favorite character in the whole piece. She’s this outsider—we don’t see her at parties, we don’t know much about her home life, but it’s clear Frankie trusts her more than anyone else. She’s also—arguably—the wisest character. She always has insight. It’s hinted Mouse also might be transgender. Without answering that question directly, what is it about queer people that allow us to find truth and insight into life in such a powerful way?

Mouse is one of those people who just accepts herself, and she does accept the ambiguity within herself. She is a bit of a fringe person for sure, but she embraces it, and she’s like middle finger salute to anyone who doesn’t accept me. And I think someone who is willing to accept their own ambiguity and embrace that and just live it to see where it goes, I think is, 1) incredibly strong, and 2) I think acceptance of difference just brings wisdom. If we’re all so freaked out about fitting in and knowing everything, we’re going to be very anxious people. Anxious people don’t have wisdom. I think self-love brings wisdom.

Related: Justin Trudeau offers tearful apology to LGBTQ community for Canada’s persecution of gay people

You mentioned Flower & Garnet earlier. This is such an interesting companion piece to that because these stories are obviously very personal to you. Both of them feature stories that have fractured father-son relationships, and they’re about finding love in unexpected places. What is it about you personally, and your own life experiences that draws you to stories of fathers and sons, and of sons learning to love, and of people learning to trust one another?

Interesting analysis. I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan, and for various reasons I don’t want to get in to, I felt quite isolated and lonely. I always felt different, not for any one particular reason, but felt quite alone in some ways. I guess I was just lonely. I mean, I had friends, I did lots of things, I probably didn’t appear that way to anybody. But, I was never really comfortable with the structure around me. And my father’s a wonderful man, but he was busy running his businesses. It wasn’t a place where men normally were very emotional and talked about anything beyond their surface masculine stuff. So I always wanted connection, so I write stories about that—wanting to overcome the boundaries of our individuality to have a deep connection with other people.

Josh Wiggins & Kyle Maclachlan

I think it’s Natasha’s line—and I’m probably going to butcher it—but she says something like “you don’t realize how lonely you are until you’re alone,” or something to that effect.

I can’t remember it either, but I’m sure it’s a good line. [Laughter]

So the film premieres at the Toronto Film Festival this weekend. You’ll be there, and so will I. This is my first time at the festival.

Oh, great.

There are so many exciting movies playing, that I have to ask: what film are you most looking forward to besides your own?

Oh my god. There are so many…I’m really looking forward to—I can’t think of the title. What’s the one that has Timothee Chalamet in it? Something boy?

Beautiful Boy.

 Beautiful BoyI’m really looking forward seeing that one. Looks amazing.

Yeah, I’m definitely catching that one. As trashy as it might sound, I’m so excited for the new Halloween movie. I love Jamie Lee Curtis in anything.

Oh yeah.

So one more time with Giant Little Ones: where can people see it in the US?

We’re still looking for distribution. The film screens for buyers this Sunday. Hopefully, that will be changing. As people watch it, we’ve had some interest. So we don’t know when it’s going to be screening in the states yet. We know it’s going to be screening at TIFF and several other film festivals. We’re going to South Korea with the film. So stay tuned to find out where you can see it near you.

Giant Little Ones premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival September 9. Check out an exclusive clip from the film below.

 

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