Interview/ Canadian Film: Keith Behrman on Giant Little Ones
The Vancouver director seemed to vanish from the face of Canadian film after his feature debut. But 16 years later, Keith Behrman is back with Giant Little Ones, a coming-of-age story that gently pulls back the curtain on the delicate question of sexual identity.
Giant Little Ones
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Maria Bello, Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann, Taylor Hickson
Directed by Keith Behrman
Running time: 93 minutes
Opening in select cities March 29
By Katherine Monk
(March 28, 2019) — Keith Behrman first hit my radar in the early noughts, when I had a job with a Canadian newspaper chain, and Behrman had just graduated from the Canadian Film Centre. His student graduation project, Ernest, was in a competition. I was on the jury, and though I had never met the Vancouver-raised director, I etched his name into memory: I had never seen such a funny, sweet, emotionally articulate and simultaneously absurd student effort as Ernest.
Not long after, in 2002, Behrman made his first feature, Flower & Garnet, the tender story of two siblings struggling to cope with the loss of their mother and their father’s enduring grief. It, too, blew me away, prompting me to write: “… It marks the arrival of a new visionary.”
But that was almost twenty years ago. Shortly after Flower & Garnet (2002) toured the world and won Behrman numerous awards (including the “Jutra,” now called the “John Dunning Award for Best First Feature”), he pretty much disappeared from the face of Canadian film. Until now.
Giant Little Ones is Behrman’s second feature film, and despite the intervening years, it feels like a natural evolution from Flower & Garnet. Though Hollywood stars Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan are at the top of the marquee, the story belongs to the kids: Josh Wiggins (Mean Dreams), Darren Mann (Van Helsing) and Taylor Hickson (Deadpool). All teenagers in the midst of coming-of-age ritual, Giant Little Ones captures the most awkward, and often defining, moments life has to offer — without judgment. Its message of acceptance was embraced on its festival tour last fall, and now, everyone else can see it as it begins its theatrical run in markets around North America this weekend. I had the pleasure of catching up with Behrman in the days before the big opening. We talked about the new movie’s approach to identity and belonging, the changing face of sexuality, and an apparent wave of gay-themed content geared at teens. But one of the first things I asked him is: What happened?
Behrman: So after Flower & Garnet, I was writing another script. But it didn’t get any momentum. There was no support from Telefilm and beyond all that, I think I started to go through a period of a sort of dismantling. A dismantling of my story, my identity. My whole ego structure.
Ex-Press: What prompted you do do that? I hear you, but most people only do that after a big life change. I dunno, like losing your job….
Behrman: I think the way I have come to understand it, and talk about it, is the closest approximation to truth. That after making Flower & Garnet, and having the relative success I had, I think the story I had about myself was no longer true. I had this belief: I think part of what I was doing since I was a kid, and up until making the films I’m making now, is I was seeking validation for myself and trying to be understood. And when that happened, and when I was understood and validated and accepted — and acknowledged — that I think my psyche kind of went ‘Whoa!’ Shortly after the film was invited to Berlin and the Jutra, and those things, I was living in the house … of the kid who played Garnet. They moved out, and my bedroom was now Garnet’s bedroom. I went to have a nap one day and started getting this anxious feeling. My heart was racing. I was feeling freaked out. What is going on? My life is the best it’s ever been. I’m at the top of my game. I think that was the start of this period in my life. Anxiety and depression, and what am I going to do with my life? It took years to work through all that. I mean, had someone shown up with a script I probably would have made another film. But I really think I needed to dismantle and deconstruct. And coming back, this idea came to me. And I thought I may as well make another film because it’s what I can do. And I need to do something. And this film, what was emerging seemed really important. So I think I came back …for different reasons. I’m not looking for approval and validation anymore. It’s still there at some level, but I don’t tie myself up into it anymore.
I think part of what I was doing since I was a kid, and up until making the films I’m making now, is I was seeking validation for myself and trying to be understood. And when that happened, and when I was understood and validated and accepted — and acknowledged — that I think my psyche kind of went ‘Whoa!’
Ex-Press: So what did you let go?
Behrman: I think a lot of things. I needed to. I did a lot of meditation. I did a lot of exploring… iowaska (ayahuasca), yoga, self-examination. I basically dismantled ‘the construct of me’ — take it apart and you realize the thing we call ourselves is really just a construct. It has all these pieces that seem solid, but they’re not at all. And slowly, bit by bit, you gain more perspective and more freedom.
Ex-Press: That perspective is very liberating. I think I went through a similar process after losing my job. My whole ego blew apart, then I realized I was so happy to let it go.
Behrman: Yes. It is quite liberating to be torn apart. You get rid of a lot of shit that doesn’t really do much for you except pull you down. It is liberating not be so attached. How do you feel liberated?
Yes. It is quite liberating to be torn apart. You get rid of a lot of shit that doesn’t really do much for you except pull you down.
Ex-Press: I have no fear anymore. There’s no external pressure. It’s just me, and how I feel about me — which is hard, because I have to take full responsibility for every second now. I am responsible for my own happiness…. and it’s not easy. You talk about similar ideas in the press materials for Giant Little Ones: This attachment to structure.
Behrman: We get attached to our sense of self which we didn’t really create in the first place. It was created for us. Then it creates all this anxiety as you’re trying to reinforce it or stop it from being torn apart. And when you realize there is no solid structure of me, and it’s always changing and fluid, then you don’t have that need to be validated, or prove yourself, or measure up. Then it does just become fun. As soon as you let go of the fear, it does get fun.
Ex-Press: Totally. But it can be tragic for those who don’t, because fear turns people into cowards, and cowardice can make people cruel. It undermines the fundamental joy of being with others. Again, you explore it in Giant Little Ones because the film talks about the fear and how that destroys the love between two friends.
Behrman: Yeah, I guess a few streams came together. One of them is I was at the end of a five month retreat on Vancouver Island, and that was sort of the last retreat during that part of my life. And I knew that part of my life was coming to an end. I was going to go back and re-engage in the world and start doing something, I just didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I was hanging with my good friend Steve Cosens, who also shot my previous work. He was talking about … five kids who committed suicide over a period of a couple of months… presumably they were gay. He thought why not make a film about someone who kills himself? And that night, I had a dream. This teenage boy was talking to his mom, and what really struck me was the strong sense of love between the two of them. And I just started writing this down without any real expectations because I hadn’t written anything in ages. No journals, no notes. But for some reason, I just kept returning to it. And more and more, that stream came back on again like it mattered.
… I had a dream. This teenage boy was talking to his mom, and what really struck me was the strong sense of love between the two of them. And I just started writing this down without any real expectations because I hadn’t written anything in ages.
Ex-Press: A sense of purpose. Lucky you!
Behrman: Ha. In some ways it was, well, there’s nothing else for me to do. Nothing else is showing up. No other career for me. Everything I do will be challenging. This is what I can do. This is what I keep getting inspired to do. So I committed to making another film and started the process. The other factor that played into the theme of the film is … my whole life long experience of feeling frustrated by the narrow constructs of you know, identity — male, female or straight or gay. All those binary notions are fractured ways of describing ourselves or each other, or identifying ourselves as one way or another. They have always seemed false to me.
The other factor that played into the theme of the film is … my whole life long experience of feeling frustrated by the narrow constructs of you know, identity — male, female or straight or gay. All those binary notions are fractured ways of describing ourselves or each other, or identifying ourselves as one way or another. They have always seemed false to me.
I think my own experience and expression was the result of all those things. Whether it’s what kind of clothes I wanted to wear while I was growing up or whatever. I wore purple pants to high school and I was called a fag. Right? But I like the colour purple. I liked the pants — even though it was such a muted expression of who I could be as a man. I think as I got older that was one of the factors of my deconstruction: Knowing there were some doors I hadn’t opened. And knowing my sexuality was one of them. I think because I grew up in such a homophobic environment that the curiosity I did have, or even just knowing that I didn’t have to be nailed down to one brand, caused me to have all this fear and anxiety. So, I went through that for a while and then at one point, I was like — Okay, I’m just going to find out. So I went and explored … and as soon as I did that, all the fear went away. And I felt very liberated, and that’s something I wanted to explore in the film, too. Not that I set out to do it. It was just there to come out.
Ex-Press: Well, it seems there’s a lot of ‘coming out’ these days. I’ve seen a notable increase in the number of gay-themed films for teens in the last year or so: Love, Simon; Boy Erased. As someone who came out over 25 years ago, I never thought I’d see a lot of the films I’m seeing now. I feel our generation of X’ers is the bridge, we’ve had perspective on the dominant culture and we’re re-examining its assumptions. Do you feel that we X’ers can own this meditative view of sexuality as something particularly ours? No pressure….
…It seems there’s a lot of ‘coming out’ these days. I’ve seen a notable increase in the number of gay-themed films for teens in the last year or so: Love, Simon; Boy Erased… I feel our generation of X’ers is the bridge, we’ve had perspective on the dominant culture and we’re re-examining its assumptions. Do you feel that we X’ers can own this meditative view of sexuality as something particularly ours?
Behrman: I think the answer is: We are the generation that really put sexuality to the forefront in a more mainstream way by pushing it on to the agenda. When we were getting close to pre-production on this one, I had this fear that I would be in a Q & A and someone would ask me why I made the film — that they wouldn’t understand what the problem is with the scenario. I was worried I was making a film that was completely outdated and irrelevant. But fortunately, and unfortunately, it’s still problematic in many places. Yet, I am surprised by the people who watch it — even young people — who are really grateful for it. They really feel it is speaking for them, and helping them accept themselves. I think that is amazing. We had one kid tell us it saved his life. We hear from a lot of people. Adults as well. I also think people are relieved. The whole presentation doesn’t devalue labels … but it says we don’t need to box or label ourselves as any construct. And I think people are relieved to hear that.
Ex-Press: I agree. And yet the irony for me is: The more women have a sense of agency, and the more taboos are removed from female sexual expression, the more heterosexually normalized it becomes. I find the lesbian community has embraced binary more now than ever: Either butch or femme. I don’t get it. To me the whole liberating part of being gay is being able to ignore the constructs. I can manifest my sexuality any way I please… that feels right to me. Forget the constructs who is the boy and who is the girl? I shut up about it, but it feels limiting. And maybe it’s reflexive. The more you fiddle with institutions, undermine core structures, the more people feel inclined to rebuild them in a different way. So rebuilding hetero constructs in gay relationships — embracing the idea of legal marriage, creating a two-child family, a male-trait partner and a female-trait partner. This idea of belonging is so key to feeling loved and meaningful, yet it ignores the regressive tendency to revert back to the secure, status quo.
Behrman: I know what you are saying. But the one thing I always wonder about is whether the experience of femininity and masculinity, are we assigning them to something that truly exists? Or whether there are forces in the universe that express in a certain way… maybe these things are just ways of engaging with each other. A positive and negative pole.
Ex-Press: I think we should be able to explore these things. I wore football jerseys all the way through elementary school. I was the classic tom boy. Now, I like wearing heels and wearing a dress every now and then. But it took a while to figure out my femme side…. That’s why I’m grateful for your film leaving so many doors open. You can be a bunch of things. Identity isn’t just a product of your genitalia. And so many kids think it is. The kids in your movie go through so much tough stuff. And they express it so well. Why are you so good at directing young people?
Behrman: That’s funny. My first reaction to your question is “hey, I’m good at directing adults, too!’ But I guess I’ve done a lot with kids. I think part of it is that they are very open. Actors are very open, and maybe the style I relate to people is well suited to young people who are very open. I also think I have a strong connection to that time in my life from an emotional perspective. Now, I am curious to make a film with all adults, and see what that is like.
Ex-Press: I don’t know. We’re nowhere near as empathetic. And certainly not as cute.
Behrman: Ha. Yeah… it’s cute when a puppy pees on the rug… All I can say is the kids in this movie are fantastic. We spent a lot of time finding the right people. People who could get the sense of uncertainty, and the richness that goes along with that. I still feel that richness.
Ex-Press: And you’re still feeling good about your return — even after doing all these interviews?
Behrman: Yes. I feel I’m coming back to the meaning of it. And there’s a lot I want to do.
Ex-Press: I can hardly wait. Just don’t make it another 16 years….
Giant Little Ones opens in select markets across North America Friday.
THE EX-PRESS, March 28, 2019