Andrea Arnold is a British director, screenwriter, and actress. She won an Oscar in 2005 for her short film “Wasp,” about a young single mother, their family’s lifestyle, and her brushes with romance and human connection. Like “Wasp,” Arnold’s feature films, including Fish Tank (2009) and American Honey (2016), while varying significantly in tone, all play with scenes of unbridled pleasure and danger, often terrifyingly close together. Arnold won the Jury Prize at Cannes for her films Fish Tank, American Honey, and Red Road (2006). Most recently, Arnold directed the second season of HBO series Big Little Lies. Whatever she does next, we’ll certainly be there.
Fish Tank (2009)
When I saw Fish Tank for the first time, I wasn’t ready. More movies are coming out now about young people living really, really hard lives with uncertain families or living situations—the Safdie brothers’ debut Heaven Knows What comes to mind, as well as last year’s Mickey and the Bear–but when Fish Tank came out, it was pretty one of a kind, and definitely the first I’d seen like it. In this genre, young (often women) protagonists are constantly threatened, even, especially, by those who are supposed to love them.
Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis’s debut) lives with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in an affordable housing unit in East London. Mia expresses herself through dance, but not the homogenous kind of dancing her neighbors like to do together. Mia’s dancing is punchy and expressive, and it links her to the world outside the housing project.
Life at home is chaotic. Mia and younger Tyler find food for themselves when they want to. Joanne spends time in her room, asleep, or drinking with friends. A new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), appears, and now the girls must decide what to make of him. For a while, it’s not clear what we are supposed to make of him, either. He is charming and playful, and he engages with Joanne’s daughters where she doesn’t seem to. He gives the children a sense of routine and family fun. But there’s something threatening about him, especially when Joanne isn’t in the room (which she often isn’t).
I am reminded of Sean Baker’s more recent The Florida Project, where a young person’s perspective on the adult world shows that world in a particularly stark light. Like Fish Tank, too, The Florida Project places first-time actors alongside Hollywood veterans (in The Florida Project, the Fassbender figure is Willem Defoe). When I watch both of these films, I feel a similar instinct: that I want to protect everyone, but also that I am in awe of them, for their resilience and their ability to find joy.
American Honey (2016)
In American Honey, Star (Sasha Lane, another debut actress), who lives a difficult home life with a sexually predatory father and very few resources, decides on a whim to join a group of young people in a passing van. They travel across the country selling magazine subscriptions. In the ensuing episodic adventures, Star figures out how to navigate the sales business and the social dynamics of the group. Star has a love affair with one of the inside members of the group, maybe the most inside, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who seems to have casually broken the hearts of most of the other girls already. But connections are tenuous in this environment, where people depend on the acceptance of the group for their survival, and where the line between surviving and failing is uncertain.
When I saw American Honey, I was an American studying in England, and I was feeling unexpectedly homesick. I went to see American Honey with English friends, who were fascinated by the idea of an American road trip across alien desert landscapes. They made “American Honey”-themed playlists with the mix of hip-hop and dreamy EDM that gives the movie so much life.
Arnold herself had an international perspective on her subject matter, as an English filmmaker making a very American road trip movie. And this outsider’s view is an incredibly effective mode through which to portray the American dream. A group of young people, rejected by their families or by the social forces that allow for financial stability, all cling to this group, hoping to make money. The selling of magazine subscriptions door-to-door, with most of the money going to higher-ups (and invisible higher-higher-ups), feels very pyramid scheme. With chants that emphasize personal responsibility, or events like “Loser Nights” that put less-successful salespeople in genuine danger, the group culture tactics feel very pyramid scheme as well. But is this that far off from the illusion of the conventional American dream, which promises us comfort and belonging if we just try harder, if we just follow all the rules?
The threats in American Honey are less visceral than those in Fish Tank. Star is eighteen, whereas Mia is fifteen, and the change in age and setting makes a huge difference for the tone. Although neither quite knows what she needs, Star has a bit better of an idea. While Mia’s only choice is to try to get out, somewhere, anywhere, Star is making choices about how and where and with whom she would like to live.
In keeping with this difference in tone, American Honey’s emotional pulse comes from the community within the band of outsiders. They dance and sing together and have bonfires. While the others make fun of Star for asking where they’re from, they have their own cooler ways of expressing affection: a baby animal found outside is passed around; they assign each other affirming nicknames and familial roles; when one girl sleepwalks, the others take turns chaperoning her to make sure she doesn’t go in the road. And maybe this is a bit of hope we can take away from this vision of the American dream: with no one to take care of us, at least our instinct is to care for each other.
Fish Tank got a rare 5/5 rating from Jan. Read her review here. Fish Tank is available for streaming on Criterion, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.
And read Tracy’s lovely review of American Honey here. American Honey is available for streaming on Netflix.
Photo Credits: Holly Horner
© Amelie Lasker (3/18/20) FF2 Media