Andrea Arnold, A Director of Chaos: The Shorts

“I love chaos because it brings life. I don’t like being in control of the set; I like going to shoot not knowing what’s going to happen.”

For her latest film, American Honey, director Andrea Arnold decided to go on a real road trip with her cast and crew from Oklahoma to North Dakota, filming as she went on the bus that carried the magazine crew that travels through the film. The freewheeling style of the shoot, where actors were told to improvise as needed and the real debauchery happened off set, resulted in a special kind of movie magic. American Honey was awarded the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has enthralled critics in Toronto and Fantastic Fest. It’s already being hailed as the American movie of the year.

Andrea Arnold’s unique aesthetic of blending the real and the fictional is a style that she’s crafted over several years, through her three short films and her four features. It’s in direct contrast to the controlled visual aesthetic of her British contemporaries, Steve McQueen and Lynne Ramsay, and is more in line with the work of the British social-realist master, Ken Loach. Arnold is a director whose work is under-seen by most, but whose filmography is small enough so that anyone can take a deep dive into her existing work and come out on the other side with a strong grasp of her style and her themes. Imagine being able to do that with Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen, who both have very extensive filmographies. Because she has made so few films, I decided to review all of her films to give you perspective for when American Honey is released on October 14.

The structure of this deep dive into Arnold’s work is very simple: every day of this week, I’ll have a new review of Arnold’s films, from her first short, Milk (1998) to American Honey. As I go through Arnold’s filmography, I’ll pick out the themes and stylistic threads that I find unite her work as a whole, as well as what interesting evolutions she might have made from one film to the next. This isn’t a comprehensive retrospective by any means; it’s an introduction to an artist and her work in a way in which you can take in the same films, read the pieces, and possibly have a discussion or gain an added appreciation for them. And with that, it’s time to take our own trip into Arnold’s work.

Milk (1998) “I don’t talk much, but I think a lot. And I watch. I watch people.”

Arnold has an acute eye and a strong feel for visual poetry and allusions; it’s evident in the first shot of her first short Milk, where Arnold introduces her story of a mother grieving over her stillborn child with an egg broken over an iron pan. This particular mother is Hetty (Lynda Steadman), and she is unmoored by her sense of motherhood without having a child to mother. As she wanders through London on the day of her child’s funeral, she meets a young man, Martin (Lee Oakes), and goes for a romp with him on a whim.

Milk is an interesting story from start to finish, but it gets even more interesting in comparison to Arnold’s later works. While Hetty is out having an adventure, her boyfriend Ralph (Stephen McGann) is burying their dead son, after which he sits around in their flat with a friend of his and drinks heavily. All of Arnold’s protagonists are women, and Hetty’s active role in the story introduces that thread. In Milk, the men sit around and do what is expected of them, while the women venture out into the world and do the unexpected. Hetty and Martin’s relationship echoes two other threads that will pop up later in Arnold’s work: the idea of the Hetty and Maritn's chance encounter, as with Zoe and Dave in WASPand Star and Jake in American Honey; and the age-gap relationship between them, similar to Kate and Connor’s relationship in Fish Tank. Milk is a strong debut from Arnold, but it is also a story that exists outside the gritty working-class Britain that she’s known for. She’s also missing her regular collaborators, namely Director of Photography (DP) Robbie Ryan, editor Nicolas Chaudeurge, and production designer Helen Scott, which is why it looks much more formal as compared to her later shorts and features. All of her regulars join her quite soon in her next short, Dog.

Dog (2001)

WASP might be Arnold’s breakout short, having won her an Academy Award in 2005, but Dog is a clear step in its direction and lays the groundwork for the bulk of her feature-length material, both narratively and thematically. The story follows a girl (Joanne Hill) as she goes on a brutal date with her casual boyfriend (Freddie Cunliffe) in the working-class town of Thamesmead, in Greater London.

Arnold’s working-class Britain setting of Red Road and Fish Tank emerges for the first time here, and she crafts images of lyrical beauty amidst the rundown landscape, including a shot of an orange balloon floating against the wild grass next to the boyfriend’s outdoor residence. Arnold also presents a story of female desire that stems from innocence and a yearning for classical love rather than lust; before she enters a drug den with her boyfriend on his journey to buy some weed for himself, the girl looks out of the window and gazes at a couple making out on the sidewalk. That desire is met with a harsh reality when her boyfriend tells her to take off her jacket and unbutton her shirt before he pushes her on her back and has sex with her without even kissing her. Arnold’s ability to alternate between the comic and the tragic in this scene and the climactic encounter with the dog is a sign of her mastery of tone. It is also a microcosm of the damage that the natural landscape endures under the order of civilization, as well as a reference to the damage the girl takes from the boy. It isn’t pretty to look at — Dog’s sex scene is one of the most brutal sexual encounters I have seen on film.

Arnold’s collaborators in Chaudreuse and Scott are present in this film, but the outlier is DP Sean Bobbitt, who shot all of Steve McQueen’s films (Twelve Years a Slave). Even without Robbie Ryan’s involvement, Arnold’s handheld aesthetic is present in Dog, with the camera walking along with the girl as she goes to meet the boy, and in the shots of the groups of birds that bookend the film. The raw emotional power that Arnold taps into gets amplified with her next and last short, WASP.

WASP (2003)

In WASP, Arnold creates a story that was extremely simple, yet extremely relatable and layered. It follows a single mother, Zoe (Natalie Press), who goes on a date with her old school-mate Dave (Danny Dyer), while she looks after her four young children at the same time. The film was shot in Arnold’s hometown of Dartford, Kent, and it shows in her eye for detail in depicting life in Zoe’s neighborhood.

Zoe fulfills two roles in this film: a mother to her children and a single, social young woman. Arnold manages to make the audience empathize with both of her characters. The depiction of the mother as a sexual being in film is one laden with middle-aged mothers who prey on younger men, the most famous of them being Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. With WASP, and later on with Fish Tank, Arnold flips this character in a way that goes beyond the sympathetic pregnant teen character (most notably depicted in Juno), and instead moves into less represented territory. When Zoe gets excited about going on her date with Dave, it’s not in a malicious or sleazy way, but rather like how any young woman of her age would react to the prospect of her “first night out in ages,” as Zoe tells her children to get them to stop disturbing her. That nuance and honesty comes from Arnold’s own life. As Sophie Elmhirst writes about Arnold in a recent profile in The New Yorker, ‘her [Arnold’s] single mother had Arnold at sixteen and four children by the age of twenty-two. Arnold predicted her future would be “on the same estate, with a lot of kids probably”’.

Another character type that Arnold depicts in WASP that is fleshed out in greater detail in Fish Tank is the supportive male model. David isn’t nearly given as much time onscreen as Fish Tank’s Connor is, but David echoes Connor’s positivity and support when he consoles with Zoe after he realizes the gravity of Zoe's situation. David is a far cry from the boyfriend from Dog, but he’s also a bit like Ralph from Milk in that he never takes over the story; all the women, including Zoe’s young girls, drive the narrative.

And then there is the character of the wasp itself. Arnold uses the wasp both as a metaphor and as a narrative device. We first see it buzzing around Zoe’s apartment while she’s trying to figure out how to temporarily get rid of her kids while she goes on her date. Kai (Danny Daley), Zoe’s infant, already develops a connection with the wasp, staring at it buzzing against the window. As Zoe opens her purse and counts out the remaining money she has for the day, the buzz of the wasp seems to be a reminder of her poverty conflicting with the evening she desperately wants to have. Her motherhood obligation returns at the end of the film through the wasp; it literally brings them back together by flying into Kai’s mouth and causing her daughters to scream for her to help them.

The other lovely thing about WASP is the way Arnold depicts Zoe’s relationship with her children. It teeters on the line between neglecting them (the food Zoe keeps at home is laughable) and caring for them (she buys them snacks at the pub), yet we see that the children love their mother unquestionably and do want her date to go well. They’re also older than they appear and say what they mean. Later in the evening, Kelly (Jodie Mitchell), the oldest of the bunch, asks Zoe whether she plans to have sex with Dave, hinting at the past times Kelly has seen Zoe when she’s been with other men. Zoe knows exactly how to cheer her children up, making for some of the best sequences in the film, when she races with them to the pub and when she dances with them to Bruce Channel’s Hey Baby in the pub’s parking lot.

It’s pretty remarkable that Arnold won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2004 for WASP, considering the competition she was up against. The other nominees in the same category for that year included sci-fi genre filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo, New Zealand funnyman Taika Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows), and independent Indian auteur Ashvin Kumar. While I haven’t seen those other shorts myself, I know that none of them can replicate the tension and humanity of WASP, which is an outstanding breakout film for Arnold. And if critics are to be believed, she only grows and expands with her debut feature, Red Road.

Up Next: the dark, chilling, and challenging thriller Red Road (2006)