In an effort to tend to a Criterion backlog in my Netflix Instant queue, I watched Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last night. I remember being intrigued when I caught the preview during a screening of An Education (which would pair well thematically). I was also more than a little nervous that the movie would take working-class girlhood less as a subject of exploration and instead as grounds for moral panic.
What transpires in Arnold’s 2009 feature is something altogether more disconcerting. It’s an unsettling film about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on an Essex council estate with her young mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne, who was probably close to her eldest daughter’s age when she had her, is perpetually drunk and between boyfriends. Mia’s contentious relationship with Tyler is probably the closest thing she has resembling a homosocial friendship. Beyond her connection to local boy Billy (Harry Treadway), Mia doesn’t seem to have friends. Her mom’s new beau Connor (Michael Fassbender) reeks of dishonorable intention.
Mia’s creative outlet is dancing. But this is a solitary activity. She has aspirations to be a b-girl, yet there’s no one with whom to battle or practice. The film is bookended by scenes where Mia attempts to engage with girl dancers in her peer group. All of them are more interested in gyrating like a video vixen instead of popping, locking, and spinning. At the beginning of the film, she admonishes some neighborhood girls for their jiggly routines. Mia spends much of the movie preparing to audition for a local club. When the tryouts finally happen, she’s horrified to discover that the staff is looking for exotic dancers. Two judges preside over the audition. In an interesting twist, it’s the female judge who requests that Mia wear her hair down and asks why she isn’t wearing hot pants. Perhaps recalling an unfortunate set of events with her mother’s boyfriend, Mia walks out of the audition and ultimately leaves home.
Mia’s inability to find a female dance partner or a community who takes any interest in her dancing recalls b-girl Asia One’s frustrations in Rachel Raimist’s hip hop documentary Nobody Knows My Name. Asia One is constantly searching for another girl to dance with and a hip hop video production that isn’t holding casting at a strip club, but neither are easy to come by.
Mia’s one-sided love for a genre and dance form is what really resonated with me. It’s hard to love hip hop sometimes when it doesn’t reciprocate. The film’s soundtrack features Wiley, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, and Gang Starr (RIP, Guru), as well as tracks from James Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and prominent use of Bobby Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”. The beats are banging and the grooves are deep, but Mia’s often dancing to them alone.
This is why my favorite scene in the film is at the end. Mia is preparing to leave when she finds her mother in the living room, dancing to her daughter’s Nas CD. Joanne tells her daughter to fuck off, which prompts Mia and Tyler to join in on a dance to “Life’s a Bitch.” It’s a touching scene in a film that’s relentlessly bleak. While the movie knows this tender moment is fleeting, it’s also the only time we see Mia dance with people instead of for them or in isolation. It’s also the rare instance where we see a smile on her face. And while Mia moves away from her mother and sister, she leaves her CDs with them. Perhaps this will lead to future dance parties.
In preparation for the Oscars, I’m catching up on my “quality” viewing. I saw The Cove yesterday, which is nominated for Best Documentary and might officially get me to stop eating meat. I also saw An Education, which I previously mentioned having an interest in seeing because protagonist Jenny Miller is shown playing a cello in the preview.
A lot of people are into this one. And there’s a lot to love. Lone Scherfig directed it. There’s a girl protagonist played by Carey Mulligan. The cast of supporting actresses is substantial. And Peter Sarsgaard mines unexpected pathos in his portrayal of David Goldman, a man who is in essence a sexual predator. I wasn’t so enamored with it, but I thought it was good.
For me, it played out less like a coming-of-age narrative and more like a horror movie, thus enforcing that oftentimes the genres come together. I saw Teeth earlier in the week, but An Education was much scarier. A bright teenage girl succumbing to the dubious charms of a much-older shakedown artist (who, as unfortunate stereotypes go, is also Jewish)? Her parents going along for the ride because he is a man of means that might allow their daughter to bypass going to college though they have no idea who he is or what he does for a living? Aforementioned brainy girl protagonist potentially throwing her life away for the romantic idea of a life with a man who exhibits obvious signs of creepiness (apart from swindling and picking up teenage girls at bus stops, I’m never going to think about a banana the same way again)? That said girl blinds herself to the reality that she couldn’t be the first girl he’s preyed upon (and, we discover later, isn’t)? The fact that all of this is based on Lynn Barber’s memoir and thus “actually” happened? Danger, Will Robinson! I literally said “it’s a trap” and shook my head “no” several times during the screening. And as much as I’d like to think gender politics have changed since the 1960s when the story is set, there are still girls who fall for suspicious men and parents who fall right along with them.
Thus the content of the story has informed my enjoyment of the movie. And while the movie is well-made, I find it more than a little disconcerting how race, class, and gender inform outcomes and expectations for girls. Miller almost throws her life away for a man she knows very little about, but still gets to go to college despite skipping her entrance exams. This has much to do with being a middle-class white girl as it does with her intellectual capability, which of course is nurtured by her private school education. Juxtapose An Education with Precious, another period piece that instead focuses on an illiterate, fat, poor, dark-skinned black girl with an extensive history of family abuse. The disparity between our societal expectations and allowances for white girls and black girls is profound. One girl goes to Oxford despite making poor personal decisions because she’s guided by her heart. Another girl is a single mother living with HIV in inner-city New York because the system is set up against her. These girls are never going to cross paths.
But one thing that I thought was interesting about An Education and wished got more emphasis is Miller’s relationship with music. She does play the cello, though not on her own accord. Her father has her take it up so as to seem well-rounded to Oxford’s admissions board.
That said, she does have knowledge of classical music and is a fan of Maurice Ravel. And in the pantheon of white girls in cinema who use phonographic technology in their bedrooms, Miller is but one more example.
It’s especially interesting what she listens to. Miller is a Francophile and loves Juliette Gréco. In the scene highlighted above, Miller is listening to Gréco’s No. 7. The movie also features Gréco’s “Sous Le Ciel de Paris,” an idealized take on the city of lights that was recorded by Édith Piaf in 1954.
Miller’s fandom is much to the chagrin of her father, who believes her love of French chanteuses takes her away from with her studies. As he doesn’t feel the same way about her boyfriend, there’s potential for queer panic. However, I think in her father’s case it’s more consciously informed by the belief that interests and hobbies cannot elevate the social status of girls as much as being paired off with a man. I’m glad Miller ultimately chooses her own livelihood over the wishes of men. I hope she kept the records too.
Two movies are coming out that feature, to varying degrees of prominence, girl musicians. The first is Bandslam, a movie that opened earlier this month and Nikki Finke noted is plagued with misguided marketing decisions. While the material’s quirky charm seems to line up more closely with Juno, the movie is being marketed as an extension of the Disney machine.
No doubt this is cruel irony for leads Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka who, along with Demi Lovato, are trying to distance themselves from the mouse as they get older. I’m not bowled over by the trailer, but am interested in it and hope it finds an audience despite its botched marketing campaign. I saw Juno with a lot of 13-year-olds. I think they’d see this movie too.
Next up, we have An Education, which is British novelist Nick Horby’s first screenplay about a cello-playing British schoolgirl falling for an older man in the Swingin’ Sixties. While I wouldn’t necessarily take a junior high kid to this movie, I know I would’ve loved this movie in high school and made my girlfriends go with me to see it.
In fact, 26-year-old me is still plenty interested, despite a very “for your consideration” trailer that brings to mind The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a stodgy coming-of-age British drama from the 1960s that was saved for me only by Maggie Smith’s performance and wardrobe. To review.
1. Cello-playing precocious schoolgirl, played by Carey Mulligan.
2. Peter Sarsgaard being in the movie (though I have more of a couple crush on him and his wife Maggie Gyllenhaal than a stand-alone crush).
3. A bunch of bad-ass British actresses (Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour, Sally Hawkins) are together in one movie based on a woman’s memoirs and directed by a lady, ya’ll.
4. Many of the aforementioned British actresses are playing characters who don’t want the girl with potential to give up herself for a dude. Some may be worried about scandal, but others (like Williams, who is also smashing on Dollhouse) are hoping she chooses her talents and goals over his interests.
Most importantly, I wanna see how music figures into these girls’ lives, as musicians and as fans.