A single mother in Dartford, England, struggles emotionally and financially to support three young girls and a baby boy as she reconnects with an old flame from high school. Andrea Arnold’s Oscar-winning short film Wasp (2003) is an at-times charming and all-around painfully honest portrayal of a family strained by circumstance yet strongly bonded in love. (RMM: 5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
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Wasting no time, director and writer Andrea Arnold reels us into Wasp’s story with a fast-paced, punchy, yet comical confrontation scene. Young, single mother “Zoë” (Natalie Press) runs down her apartment stairs with a diaperless baby “Kai” (Danny Daley) in her arms. She is followed by her three little girls, “Kelly” (Jodie Mitchell), “Sinead” (Molly Griffiths), and “Leanne” (Kaitlyn Raynor). The family strides angrily over to the house of a neighbor, and a fight breaks out as Zoë declares, “No one hits my kids and gets away with it!” After the neighbor threatens to call social services, hotheaded Zoë counts to three before the entire family gives the neighbor a collective middle finger. A fitting introduction to an imperfect yet compelling family.
On their way home, Zoë runs into an old crush from high school, “Dave” (Danny Dyer), who asks her out on a date. When he sees the children sitting on the curb behind her, Zoë quickly says that she’s watching them for a friend. For all the love Zoë has for her children, she is also embarrassed by them. In addition to making her look less desirable, they remind her of the enormous responsibility that is motherhood—which she is ill-equipped to embody. Furthermore, Zoë has virtually no money. This much is evident by the nearly-empty kitchen cupboards, the moldy bread, and the bag of sugar that she offers the girls when they’re hungry.
After calling several friends to watch the kids with no luck, Zoë decides to bring them along on her date. She charges the oldest daughter, Kelly, with the task of watching the others outside the bar. We feel her anxiety as our own as she divides her time between Dave and her children. This scene could be funny if it were the plot of a sitcom episode, but the stakes are too high here. We cannot ignore that the circumstance of Zoë’s predicament is, for the most part, poverty. She cannot afford a babysitter, and all the food she can offer her girls is a bag of chips and a glass of coke from the bar. Nobody is laughing.
Of course, I have to point out the other circumstance – Zoë herself as a mother. One might say that it is her selfishness that puts her in this situation. A responsible mother, realizing that nobody can watch her kids, would cancel the date. However, Zoë desperately wants to feel wanted, to have a bit of fun. I can’t quite make up my mind about her. It is incredibly irresponsible to leave one’s young kids outside a bar. It is emotionally abusive to yell at them and manipulate them as much as she does. They are just kids, and they love her unconditionally. They won’t argue back.
But Zoë does love her children. That much is clear. When a wasp almost flies into baby Kai’s mouth at the climax of the film, Zoë is beside herself. She does take out most of her anger and fear on Kelly, but she expresses a genuine concern for her son. Afterward, she clutches his head to her chest and breathes in deeply. Throughout the film, Zoë plays freely and joyfully with her girls. They break out into dance in the middle of the street. This light in Zoë’s character contrasts with her darker, angrier side.
If I’m confused by how I feel about Zoë, then I’m even more confused about my feelings towards Dave. From the moment I saw him, I wanted to dislike him. He seemed a little haughty and disinterested in the children on the curb. I predicted that when he discovered they were Zoë’s children, he’d turn on her. At the bar, he admits that he always liked Zoë but never pursued her because she was “Mark’s girl,” and Dave doesn’t “touch other people’s property.” It seems that these men, these aggressive and possessive men, have followed Zoë her whole life. When Zoë ran to her kids in the parking lot, revealing her secret, I braced for an ugly reaction. I was shocked when there was none. Instead, Dave offered to drive them all home. And I thought, Oh, he’s a good guy.
But my own reaction irritates me now because I realize that we, as women, often set an incredibly low bar for men. “Well, there are worse things he could’ve done,” and “at least he wasn’t terrible” are the types of comments we have grown accustomed to making, even today. We gloss over the negative with the admittance that it could’ve been worse. But not throwing a fit at the discovery of Zoë’s children doesn’t erase the fact that Dave views women as property. One “right” does not cancel out all the wrongs, all the degrading comments, and all the subtle ways men put women down. But do I blame him? Them? Or do I blame the society that has perpetuated these toxic thoughts? I genuinely don’t know.
If you’d like to know more about the films of Andrea Arnold, you can read more here!
© Roza M. Melkumyan (9/21/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Zoë storms across the yard to a neighbor’s house, followed by her children.
Top Photo: Zoë walks into the bar for her date with Dave.
Middle Photo: The children sit in the bar parking lot, waiting for Zoë.
Bottom Photo: Zoë and kids give their neighbor the middle finger.
Photo Credits: The Criterion Collection
Zoë often tells her girls that they need to take care of each other. The girls also discuss their mother together.