Dir. Andrea Arnold. Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Griffiths
Most of Mia’s (Jarvis) conversation, at least before Conor (Fassbender) shows up, is Hobbesian: “nasty, brutish, and short.” She has a flair for profanity, and while her vocabulary and speech appear to be pretty limited outside that one sphere, within it she’s practically a prodigy. The first seven or eight minutes of the film are a master class in showing us her several sides. She leaves another message for a friend, sounding distraught; her friend isn’t picking up, and it’s clear they’ve quarreled over something. She finds her friend with a bunch of other girls, dancing some choreographed dance together while some boys look on. Mia lets her friend have it, telling her she can’t dance (and she’s right, really), which the girl doesn’t take kindly to. Mia headbutts her, about breaks her nose, and storms off. Minutes later, she sees a horse in a mostly abandoned lot with only some campers around. She tries to free the horse, using a brick on its chain, before she’s chased off. Home again home again, where her mother (Kierston Wareing) chews her out for getting into a fight.
It’s obvious that Mia has never been the beneficiary of kind words, never had any of her good qualities commented on or praised, and been conditioned to strike preemptively rather than take the first punch. Although she’s not much of a dancer, it’s something she obviously cares about. She practices in an empty apartment near her own in the projects, where she can be alone and doesn’t have to worry about anyone else’s opinions. This is probably for the best. The first time we see her dance, it’s a little funny; she’s stiff, performs mostly rudimentary moves, and seems to be thinking through each move as she does it. One is reminded a little of that review of Saturday Night Fever which says that “At no time are we watching a young man who demonstrates a natural or exciting flair for dancing.” We come to understand her dancing a bit more as the movie goes on, and it’s hard not to feel bad about the first assessment. She obviously has no training, but she’s not unschooled. She goes onto YouTube (trust me, kids, there’s nothing like watching a movie from the early days of YouTube to get a real kick in the teeth concerning how old you are now) to get her moves, and she does incorporate them into her routines. It’s the one thing she seems to care about and take special time to work on. It’s exactly the kind of talent that a teacher would be totally unable to pry out of someone so private, so afraid of humiliation. (Of course, Mia doesn’t go to school; a social worker comes around presumably to chase her down.) Her mother is not supportive pf her daughter’s one hobby; at one point in the film, Mia has opened up enough to dance a little around Conor, but when her mother comes back and makes a crack about it, Mia lashes out with one of those charmingly English swear word fireworks shows and, most interestingly, directs it at Conor. It’s his fault that she’s dancing at all, not her mother’s fault for being a jerk about it.
Conor’s first interaction with Mia comes while she’s trying to dance like the people in a music video. “You dance like a black,” he says crudely. Mia lashes out, embarrassed that this strange man saw her dancing in her underwear, but he explains that it’s a compliment. (Doubtless many viewers across the pond needed that explained to them too.) It’s a perfect introduction to Conor, who seems unable to be kind without doing something which is unbearably wrong. Joanne has a party for her grown-up friends (and Conor, of course), which means her daughters are banished upstairs. Mia manages to liberate a bottle of vodka and drinks enough of it to pass out in her mother’s room after practically filling her eyelids with eyeliner. Hours later, Conor very tenderly carries her back to her own bed. Mia is just awake enough to register that part of what he does when he sets her down is take her pants off…and then he puts the blanket over her. Time and time again Conor will be sweet to her, usually with words or with encouragement, and then follow it with some unforgivably wrong flirtation. It’s like he read Lolita and came away from it thinking Humbert Humbert was the good guy. He lends her a video camera for a dance audition, tells her she’ll do great, but can’t stop himself from spanking her for running away from the social worker. She seems concerned, but at the same time Conor has successfully become the only light in her life. He is sexy and older, more mature than her mother, likes having her around, treats her like she has feelings, but is palpably dangerous. As tough as Mia pretends to be, she is deeply naive and profoundly uneducated. It’s a bad mix.
Fassbender is not operating at full handsome in this movie (and a good thing too, because people would probably die if he did), but he hardly needs all that to rope in a fifteen-year-old. He’s a little scruffy and could use a haircut, or at the very least a comb. He doesn’t dress very well, favoring tee shirts that just look old. But he is not shy about taking his shirt off, and one might well confuse Fassbender with whoever the Greek god of six-packs was. Fassbender’s smile, even in real life, is a little predatory because you can count all of his teeth; it is quite literally predatory here.
His favorite song is the Bobby Womack cover of “California Dreaming.” He introduces it to Mia and her family on a little outing that they all take together, singing along quietly and tunefully, using his hands as percussion on the wheel. It’s not like anything else that Mia listens to, which tends to be a series of old American hip-hop and R&B which all sounds the same after a while. It’s easy to see her being taken with him here; Mia’s mother and little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths, who is so funny it hurts) are more or less immune themselves. The song itself is a key musical choice; part of the reason it perseveres and and endears itself to so many is the story it tells of wanting to be somewhere else. Mia never really expounds on where she’d rather be than Essex; maybe she never thinks that big, or maybe it would be enough for her not to live with her mother in a janky little flat anymore. The movie ends as she runs off to Wales with a boy about her age, and it’s worth noting that she goes to the opposite end of Britain to get away from her life. Conor, on the other hand, seems to be living out the fantasy of being anywhere but where he is by dating Joanne. It doesn’t take too long for us to get wind of Conor’s escapism, but to everyone’s credit it’s still a bit of a punch in the gut when Mia discovers that Conor has a family already, a wife and a daughter. His reasons for wanting out without actually getting out constitute a much older, simpler story than whatever motivates Mia to live differently.
Arnold’s direction feels a little faddish when she gets away from the realism she does best. There’s a long sequence featuring a bouncy handheld camera that’s indistinguishable from any of the other films from the late end of the aughts, and while Arnold’s blue-orange shots are much more artful than the average (I’m personally fond of a neatly delineated street in orange where everything above, including a tree, is blue), it’s still part of that movement in film in which those two colors just had to abut. What makes those two choices frustrating, even in small doses, is how her direction is nearly perfect when she depicts scenes. Arnold has an eye for what makes these projects look natural and lived-in without showing us some demeaning pit of squalor. The camera quivers and moves then too, but it still gives us long opportunities to take in the messy piles of clothes on the couch, the tiny table in the kitchen and the perpetually full sink. Mia’s environment is responsible for her in all but the most extreme case (which involves Conor’s daughter), and Arnold is incredible at creating and shooting that environment to its greatest effect.