By Nick Romano
March 05, 2019 at 05:06 PM EST
Vertical Entertainment.

On its surface, Giant Little Ones, a moving new teen drama from Canadian director Keith Behrman, seems like a standard coming-out story. Two lifelong friends — one closeted, one straight — have a sexual experience together one night after a birthday party that forever mars the relationship, sending ripple effects throughout their social circles. But where the film stuns and surprises is through its nuanced approach.

“This film is an expression of my own frustration growing up as a man in a pretty homophobic and overtly exaggerated masculine world,” Behrman, who wrote the screenplay, tells EW. “I think I always knew as a young man, even as a boy, that there was something about how I was supposed to be and how the men around me were being, it just didn’t seem right. It seemed very fragmented and restrictive and limited and not whole in truth. So that was something that I always was, in some shape or form, pushing against. I think that just came out in the film I made as an adult.”

The story of Giant Little Ones was in some ways a response to a string of suicides by bullied teens Behrman remembers a few years back in Canada, but the film didn’t take shape until he had a dream about a boy speaking with his mother in a kitchen. Through constant drafts and workshopping with his producer, Allison Black, the filmmaker turned this nugget into a story that treats homophobia as a symptom of a larger problem, toxic masculinity.

High school swimmer Franky Winter (Max‘s Josh Wiggins) feels the social pressure to have sex with his girlfriend, though it never seems to work out. One night after his birthday party, he wakes to find his best friend Ballas Kohl (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s Darren Mann) fondling him beneath his sheets. Franky’s natural response is to reassure Ballas that their friendship is intact, but Ballas, fearing what others at school might think, tells everyone it was Franky who made the move.

“I could totally understand [Ballas] being an athlete in high school,” Mann, who comes with a background in hockey, says. “Kids can be pretty cruel, and especially the sports world is even tougher with that kind of topic. A character like Ballas really cares so much of what his peers think about him. I understand the struggle he was going through. He is what he thinks everyone wants him to be and at the same time he’s really battling these feelings inside.”

Also playing a gay man in Netflix’s Sabrina as the warlock boyfriend of Ambrose, Mann was drawn to the reliability of this coming-of-age tale. “I’ve auditioned for many gay characters and I’ve played quite a few, as well,” he says. “I would never make a decision based on the character’s sexuality, but if the character wasn’t interesting, I wouldn’t want to do it… For me, personally, characters in that age range aren’t so layered and dynamic as Ballas.”

Behrman’s “intuition from the very beginning was not to make a tragic film,” the director explains, least of all another story about the suicide of a closeted teen. So instead, he traced the spider crack effect of an overtly masculine culture back to its epicenter through a sequence of characters and scenes.

In fighting so hard to conform to the rigid definitions of manhood, Ballas becomes the same fratty bully he and Franky once mocked — this scene, playing outside a convenient store, being the most trying for Mann to capture.

“I’m always going to remember the entire night where we shot the scene at the convenient store ‘cause it was such a layered scene and so emotionally demanding for both of us,” the actor recalls. “It would’ve been a really boring scene if it was just purely ass-kicking. There’s so much more happening for Ballas than just beating Franky up — beating up the person he really loved, too, you know? Just that added dynamic, it really hit home on our emotions. It was a lot of fun to do, but it definitely had its toll on us. It was an exhausting scene to film.”

Through spray-painted messages on the kids’ school lockers, the film also tackles the ripple effect around labeling. Through the trauma of Ballas’ sister Natasha (Deadly Class‘ Taylor Hickson), who finds herself deemed a slut, Giant Little Ones then touches on sexual violence and the “boys will be boys” mentality, all part of this same spider crack.

For Franky, the lines splinter even further through his parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Mario Bello): when his father came out as gay and separated from his mother, it planted the idea that being gay had already dismantled his family. Through conversations with his dad — including another tearjerking dad speech that Behrman swears predates Call Me By Your Name — that conceit is unraveled.

“In a way I’d written something that I would love to have heard from my father,” Behrman says of writing that dialogue. “And it’s not even necessarily about the sexuality, it’s just what he says: ‘You’re a good, young man. I’m proud to be your father.’ I think so many people, whatever your orientation or situation, just really wants to hear that. I wanted to have heard that. I think it’s therapeutic, even if it’s via a film, to be immersed in that experience and I hope it is, anyways.”

“It’s optimistic,” he adds. “You know they’re going to be okay and they’re turning the page.”

Giant Little Ones, currently screening in limited New York theaters, expands this Friday to select cities.

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