Directed by: Andrea Arnold.
Written by: Andrea Arnold.
Starring: Natalie Press (Zoë), Danny Dyer (Dave), Jodie Mitchell (Kelly), Molly Griffiths (Sinead), Kaitlyn Raynor (Leanne), Danny Daley (Kai).
Considering that many filmmakers start by making shorts, the history of directors winning an Oscar for a Live Action, Short and going on to find success in features isn’t actually very good. In recent years, only two stand out – 2003’s winner Martin McDonagh, who went from winning for Six Shooter to making In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths and 2004’s winner, Andrea Arnold, who won for the brilliant short Wasp – before making features such as the creepy Red Road (2006), the brilliant Fish Tank (2009) and the rather daring Wuthering Heights (2011). She has become a director to look forward to – as she has an interesting eye, and an unique outlook at class, gender, and in Wuthering Heights, race.
Wasp is a masterful short – perfect at its length (25 minutes) as it presents the viewer with a complete portrait of a young, irresponsible mother and her children. Zoe (Natalie Press – a year before her minor breakout in My Summer of Love), is a young mother with four children – three girls the oldest being about 9, the youngest being about 3, and a baby son in a stroller. She loves her kids – but has no real idea how to raise them, no money, and seemingly no support – either from the father of the kids or her own family. She is basically alone, poor, with four kids – and more than a little bit of a temper, as we see in an early scene where she and another mother get in a rather profane argument about her kids.
Things take a turn in Wasp when she runs into Dave (Danny Dyer), a man she used to know. The two talk and flirt – and Zoe lies to him, saying she’s only babysitting the kids. Dave invites her to come down to the pub that night – and she agrees. She cannot find a babysitter, so she brings the kids along – but not wanting Dave to know they are hers, leaves them in the alleyway outside, with nothing but a pop and some chips to tide them over. Later in the movie, a brief exchange with another woman in the pub, will explain why she didn’t just leave them at home – she’s down that before, and gotten into trouble.
Tragedy threatens to strike throughout Wasp, as we see the kids race around outside the pub, pushing the stroller too fast, while at the same time growing increasingly hungry. The film gets its title from a wasp that shows up in the final few minutes – flying into the baby’s mouth. The scenes of the children are intercut with the scenes of Zoe inside the pub, playing pool, drinking, and flirting with Dave.
It would be easy to condemn Zoe for her behavior – which is abhorrent, of course – but Arnold shows her in if not a sympathetic light, than at least a human one. You don’t approve of her actions, but you at the very least understand them, and Zoe becomes more human as the movie progresses. The same goes for Dave, who at first strikes you as a kind of grown up frat boy – but in the end does something at least kind. Whether it will last or not, I don’t know, but he isn’t quite the shallow asshole we first expect when Zoe walks into the bar and he calls a “one of them modern birds, so you can buy the first round”. He’s simply oblivious to her situation.
In many ways, Wasp is a forerunner to Arnold’s brilliant film Fish Tank – which was about a teenage girl (Katie Jarvis, who delivered such a great performance, and yet I haven’t seen her since) and her sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). Both films are about class, and how the main characters – young women, trapped in a cycle of poverty – see themselves. Fish Tank may be the more hopeful of the films – the main character there at least recognizes she needs to get out, and has the opportunity to do so – but despite the kind way Wasp ends, it offers little hope. Zoe still has four kids, and little if any support. She’s trapped, her kids are trapped, and none of them deserve it – but there it is.
What Wasp shows about Arnold is a few things – one is her ability to show the people trapped in these lives without moralizing, judging or talking down to them, or provoking liberal guilt in the audience. There are stretches in all or Arnold’s work with little to no dialogue – her visuals (aided greatly by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who made his first collaboration with Arnold here, and has shot all her films since. Arnold doesn’t underline the falsely juice up the suspense here – she doesn’t manipulate the audience with the children in peril situation as much as she could.
I haven’t seen Arnold’s other shorts – Milk and Dog – but I’m going to look for them now. And I’m happy that she’s apparently making another feature this year – 4 years after Wuthering Heights. We need more directors like Andrea Arnold – and Wasp is a good place to start if you haven’t yet discovered her.