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Coming of age in Canada

What’s it like to grow up and come of age as a boy in Ontario’s near North? How does this geography of water, rocks and trees produce a man? What are the tectonic forces which shape him for life on this land? A related but even bigger question is how we might tell these pivotal and identity-forming stories that are almost mythic in their scope. And when we’re such a multicultural people today, can these stories be told in a singular way? Or does every different person have their own unique story? Can a single story tell it all?

Many stories of boys becoming men north of Lake Superior conceive of the struggle primarily as an external one. The challenges of land, animals and weather must be met in order to become mature. Whether it is raw strength or brute determination, in the end they become men because they have achieved a place for themselves in a harsh environment with little more than their muscle.

Sleeping Giant is a feature film from new Canadian director Andrew Cividino which debuted at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and has recently been in limited release in select North American theatres. The film raises these same coming-of-age questions but from a different vantage point.

For teenage Adam, the central character, the transition from teenager to young adult is not marked by the external challenges of weather or geography but the internal challenges of his own personality and growing awareness of his family’s dysfunction. What will Adam do with his knowledge?

When the film opens, Adam and his parents have recently arrived in the rural outskirts of Thunder Bay for their annual summer holidays. We quickly learn two things about Adam’s family. Adam’s parents are over-protective. And his parents’ relationship isn’t as emotionally close as he assumed.

Adam’s family has come to this location repeatedly over the years. They know many of the locals and they quickly re-acquaint themselves with friends they haven’t seen since the previous summer. This year Adam falls in with two other boys who, despite their grandmother’s attempts, introduce him to their appetite for beer, recreational drug use, and petty crime – habits which one of them has cultivated to counterbalance a deep sense of loneliness he feels in his life. One night, during a community-wide BBQ and firework celebration, Adam ponders his new “friends” and their recreational activities when he happens to witness his father’s affair with the local fish monger.

Up until this point in the film, we witness a typical family’s summer holiday. Things appear quite normal. The issues are everyday issues: adolescence, parenting, relationships, boys and girls in Canada. But now the psychological – and even theological – ante is raised and the film confronts us with a dark matrix of uncomfortable issues and questions that make us squirm in our seats – the stuff literally of life and death. We feel like we are right back in the opening chapters of Genesis where there is another Adam who is also wrestling with enormous questions of significance, and a nasty history that results.

Sleeping Giant forces us to confront the role that secrets, rivalries and jealousy play in our families and friendships and how they affect our emerging identities. Are our youthful misdemeanours really just innocent indiscretions or do they have a more formative role in our emerging adulthood? Why does our sense of self often come about through acts of violence – either done to us by others, by us to others, or to ourselves?

This is a difficult, dark film to watch to the end – an end that leaves you hanging in the ambiguity between life and death. But these are also the questions raised by the early chapters of the Bible through the raw stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, stripped of their pious sentimentality.

These are not only individual or personal questions. They are also important communal questions. Who are we as a people called Canada? The Prime Minister recently said on the world stage that “We’re Canada and we’re here to help.” Could it be that this film is also suggesting that Canada is a sleeping giant? Sleeping Giant places us at the intersection of all these crucial, but uncomfortable questions: who am I? Who are we? What am I going to do about it? And what might that mean – for good or bad?

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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