I like going into movies not knowing a thing about them. I saw this film on some lists, suggesting it as one of the best British films of the year. That was enough for me. It is indeed a good film, though I hesitate to articulate why. Explaining the plot kind of ruins the experience. And it’s not an experience one really wants to have. In a general kind of way, the film follows Mia (Kate Jarvis, in an amazing debut), a 15 year old girl living in an impoverished part of Essex with her mother and younger sister. Her mother’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender, in an amazing year of roles) visits more often than he used to. She likes to practice dancing in an abandoned apartment in her complex in a way that is more serious than girlish pastime. She keeps going back to this part of town with an old horse chained to a cement block. To say anything else about what these things have to do with each other would take away from watching the film.
It is certainly reasonable to assume that Andrea Arnold is definitely a filmmaker to watch. This film says a lot about a lot of things (adolescence, femininity, class, urban life, etc.) without really having to be about those things. I’ll just say, with no authority or logic at all, that I don’t think this film could have been directed as well by a man. Being a non-female, I can’t really know, but the perspective of this film feels so in tune with the main, female character. We always see the world of a film through our own lens/gaze, but this film anchors its world to how it appears to Mia; her world really is like living in a fish tank. This film portrays adolescence with a truth that is increasingly rare these days. There is no judgment of the characters by the film; there is no need to supply an explanation for why they do the things they do.
There are also a lot of motifs spread throughout that I’m not entirely sure I’ve completely picked up on. There are repeated insinuated comparisons of Mia’s life with that of the objects/animals she encounters, whether its the underfed and sickened horse tied in a parking lot, or the fish caught from the river, ‘kindly’ speared through rather than left to suffocate (a rather adept bit of metaphorical foreshadowing that can be interpreted in so many different ways). The girl lives with what she knows, based on what she (and her family) can afford. The movie doesn’t have to be about class, but you can’t ignore its importance in what plays out (again, spoilers omitted). She seems limited in her options because no one has even given her any. And for a budding teenager, a lack of options can be, among other things, quite dangerous.
I can’t think of anything profound to compliment this movie. I read about someone comparing it to the Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, L’Enfant), which is a name-check becoming a bit too synonymous with “intellectual realism” (even though it’s supposed to be a compliment). If I was in the mood for a comparison, I would say this makes a good double-feature with An Education. Though Carey Mulligan‘s Jenny may have been struggling to make it to Oxford (Kate Jarvis’ Mia would never have contemplated having a chance), both stories are about an education of an entirely different kind. I would recommend this film for people who are in the mood for a drama that lacks sentimentality and is extremely subtle in its emotional manipulation. Like me, you may not be particularly interested in seeing people dance to Nas or Bobby Womack, but you could give it a try.