There’s quite some excitement about Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, out today. Here’s my review of her earlier feature, Fish Tank, from 2009, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes that year.
The people at the bottom of the pile in twenty first century Britain don’t get much of a look in on the big screen at the moment, other than as objects of fear or pity. Many people in Britain would refer to 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), the central figure of this film, as a chav. Sullen and solitary, she lives on an unprepossessing estate near the Thames Estuary (sorry, that’s Thames Gateway in today’s Britain) where banks of windows showing elements of the lives inside resemble the shelves of fish tanks in a pet shop. Her mother is still young, dressing like her teenage daughter and getting what she can out of life, including bringing home the occasional boyfriend. Mia is moody and apparently friendless, in trouble at school, her only passion dancing, which she does alone in her room to her music player. It takes a while to warm to her, helped along by a maybe over-symbolic episode where she tries to liberate a tethered horse at a Gypsy site.
Then there’s a breath of fresh air. Mother’s latest boyfriend is a charming Irish bloke (Michael Fassbender) with wider horizons, whose warmth begins to thaw the frigid relationships within the family. He takes them out into the fresh air, and they blossom into the image of a proper family. You are reminded how seeing people happy makes us like them. Someone at last believes in Mia and encourages her in her aspirations, but the halcyon period is shortlived and everything soon turns bad.
After a bleak denouement by the salt creeks of the Thames, the film ends with an escape into the unknown, Mia’s peeling herself free from her mother and the risk of sinking into the same life, beautifully encapsulated in a little dance they do together. It’s unexpected and moving.
Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox filming method unveiled the plot, shot chronologically, scene by scene to the actors, which partly accounts for its freshness and credibility. Katie Jarvis in her first ever acting role (apparently spotted on a station platform rowing with her boyfriend) as Mia is a marvellous find, and special mention must go to young Rebecca Griffiths as Mia’s sparky little sister, Tyler.
Mia isn’t, like Billy Elliot, specially talented in a field that will remove her safely from her class and make her acceptable, nor is her story removed from our present into the safety of the past. She is now. Like Ken Loach with Billy Casper in Kes, Arnold uses film brilliantly to see into the soul of a young person disregarded and put down by mainstream society, helped by a potent sense of place. It’s at times a hard film to watch, but not without humour, absorbing, and important.
Seen at Cinema Days, Odeon, Nuneaton, June 2009