Andrea Arnold’s Authenticity: From Troubled Teens to Dairy Cows

7 years ago today, American Honey was released in theaters, so we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate its creator, Andrea Arnold, one of the most impactful filmmakers of our time.

Andrea Arnold is a British filmmaker, known for her boundary-pushing films which leave a profound impact on anyone who watches them. Born in Dartford, Kent (England) to teenage parents, Andrea was the eldest of four. Raised by a single mother in a working-class family, Andrea found ways to entertain herself and her siblings. This no doubt led to her storytelling instinct, as well as her critical eye towards society from a young age. In fact, she is said to have written a play about the “horrors” of the slave trade at just ten years old. 

Andrea left school at sixteen to study dance, but her drive to create outweighed her desire to perform; she developed a performance piece inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank while studying there. At eighteen, she began working as a children’s television presenter on the iconic show No. 73. She worked in television for ten years, always writing on the side, before realizing that her stories could become films. After studying at the American Film Institute of Los Angeles, Arnold’s breakthrough came with her short film Milk (1998), about a woman coping with a miscarriage who goes on an adventure with a man she has just met. The short won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, a recognition which marked the start of her illustrious career in cinema.

Andrea’s debut feature film was Red Road in 2006.

Andrea’s debut feature film was Red Road (2006), which follows the life of a CCTV operator in Glasgow who becomes obsessed with a man she sees on her monitors. From the outset, Red Road establishes Andrea’s unprecedented authenticity in her films. She shot the film in the real location, and utilized non-professional actors, all of which created a visceral sense of reality in the character and the story. 

Andrea Arnold’s next film, and perhaps her most beloved one, was Fish Tank (2009). The film follows Mia, an isolated and rebellious teenager who finds solace in hip-hop dance and aspires to become a professional dancer and escape the bleak housing development where she grows up. When her mother brings home a new boyfriend, he interrupts the fragile equilibrium of Mia’s existence as their relationship grows more complex. 

Like Red Road, Fish Tank offers a brilliantly raw and intimate look at Mia, who is portrayed brilliantly by Katie Jarvis, owing authenticity to the fact that this was her debut performance. In her review of the film, FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner says, “I can’t remember ever meeting a character quite like Mia before: foul-mouthed but clearly intelligent, damaged and needy, but also resourceful and resilient. Good outcomes are more likely than bad ones because Mia’s behavior gives us cause for hope.”  

Andrea’s use of handheld cameras and long takes create an immersive and almost documentary-like feel.

Andrea’s use of handheld cameras and long takes create an immersive and almost documentary-like feel. At the same time, Fish Tank is an honest portrayal of the working-class world; the film’s cinematography captures the bleakness of the housing estates while also finding moments of beauty and hope within the harsh landscape. The film, like many of Andrea’s films, showcases and gives voice to the most ordinary people of the world, finding beauty in the ins and outs of real life. 

American Honey marked Arnold’s first foray into American cinema. The film follows a group of teenage hustlers as they traverse the American Midwest. Here, Andrea turns her attention to the class issues of the USA. As FF2 Contributor Tracy Shen puts it in her review, “Andrea Arnold […] now probes into class divisions and social indifference in America. What is made seen is the forgotten, and what we see this time, we definitely won’t forget.” Utilizing her signature handheld camera and documentary-like style, as well as casting inexperienced teenagers who belong to the social class the story portrays, Andrea succeeds once again to deliver another raw and emotionally affecting portrait of those who are often made invisible.

Andrea’s most recent project, Cow (2021), is also her first true documentary.

Andrea’s most recent project, Cow (2021), is also her first true documentary. In it she examines the life of a dairy cow named Luma; another unlikely yet extremely compelling film subject. The film provides an intimate and meditative exploration of the animal’s existence, shedding light on the hidden world of industrial farming.

Though many filmmakers in recent years have sought to capture the less glamorous people and places in life, Andrea was one of the very first, and is still one of the very best of them. Whether it is a teenage girl in a British housing project or a cow in a dairy farm, Andrea’s films bring to the forefront the members of society who often get pushed to the fringes. Furthermore, her unwavering commitment to capturing these subjects authentically leave us worrying about them, wondering about them, and overall feeling completely entranced. 

© Julia Lasker (9/30/23) FF2 Media


Read Amelie Lasker’s tribute to Andrea Arnold here.

Read Tracy Shen’s review of American Honey here.

Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Fish Tank here.

Read Elisa Shoenberger’s review of Cow here.

Watch American Honey here.

Watch Red Road here.

Watch Fish Tank here.

Watch Cow here.


Featured photo: Actor Katie Jarvis as Mia in the film FISH TANK (2009). Photo Credit: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JD8J9J

Bottom photo: Andrea Arnold attending the COW photocall as part of the 74th Cannes International Film Festival in Cannes, France on July 09, 2021. Photo by Aurore Marechal/ABACAPRESS.COM Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2G6YCEX

Tags: American Honey, Andrea Arnold, British Women Filmmakers, Cow, Elisa Shoenberger, Fish Tank, Jan Lisa Huttner, Milk, Red Road, The Diary of Anne Frank, Tracy Shen

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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