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The Extraordinary Ordinary Films of Andrea Arnold

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Career Trajectory: a female independent filmmaker

Andrea Arnold is a British independent film director and screenwriter who grew up in similar circumstances to the characters represented in her film Fishtank. As a youth she dabbled in acting, and traveled to study at the American Film Institute in her mid-twenties. Her short film Wasp (2003) won an Oscar which launched her career as a filmmaker.

Since then, three of Arnold’s films received Grand Jury prizes at Cannes— a significant fete, especially as a female filmmaker if we consider Cannes history of awarding predominantly male directors the Palm D’Or.

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In this research paper I’ll explore how Arnold navigated getting American Honey (2016) made, distributed, marketed, its critical reception, and box office returns. American Honey marked the release of her first American made “independent” film, and her first foray into mainstream audiences. Until then she had critical acclaim but her films had yet to reach a large mainstream audience. American Honey was also the first time Arnold cast well known Hollywood stars, Shia Labouf and Riley Keough, alongside unknown non-actors. It’s interesting to note that Arnold has yet to make another feature film since the release of American Honey, and has never made a traditional studio film— is it a lack of opportunities, or the filmmaker’s own prerogative?

Since American Honey, Arnold has directed episodes of television, and is currently in post-production on the second season of HBO’s acclaimed “limited” series Big Little Lies (2017), for which she directed every episode. Arnold has typically written her own material. Her current stint directing television is a break from that dynamic which could challenge her ability to maintain control and therefore a distinct cinematic voice. Big Little Lies is set to be released in early 2019, so unfortunately I won’t be able to analyze it.

Arnold as “Auteur”

In this research paper I will argue that Arnold’s films have stylistic and thematic through lines which are specific to her and which give her body of work a unified distinct voice. Over the course of her career, Arnold has made films in a variety of genres (coming of age, road epic, classical adaptation), and yet she’s been able to establish a specific voice that bind them all. Her films seem to be bound by several threads— the world of youth, female leads, nature and animals, authentic representations of poverty, visual poetry, street casting, single character point-of-view, use of pop music, hand-held camera, and the thematic through-lines of loneliness, voyeurism, class, and freedom.

The protagonists in her films, through all very different, could each be categorized as dreamers— dreamers who refuse to let their circumstances (poverty, class, means) prevent them from dreaming, and in some cases fulfilling their dreams.

Arnold’s films have an authentic feel which stems from her journalistic approach to the material, as well as her affinity toward street casting and location shooting— all aspects that lend to her unique voice as a director. Arnold comes from a lower-income background, and has immersed herself in the communities she draws inspiration from in order to help tell her stories.

Theme: Nature, Symbolism, & Representation of lower-income youth

I think there’s a great deal to explore about representation of youth culture and people from lower-incomes when discussing Andrea Arnold’s films. Arnold’s use of nature as symbolism ties into her themes about class and coming of age.

Andrea Arnold’s films deal with the brutality of the human experience, and, more often than not, they focus on the lives of lower-income people. Arnold infuses these seemingly bleak circumstances with visual poetry and metaphors creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary— most notably in Fishtank and American Honey.

I’m particularly drawn to Arnold’s visual storytelling— use of landscape, casting, and camera to help show the inner emotion of the characters. For Arnold, it’s not about glamorizing or exploiting poverty, rather she’s interested in giving her characters agency in the form of finding beauty in the ordinary and in nature (i.e.: a swim at the pond in Fishtank, or the bonfire by the lake in American Honey).

In Arnold’s films Nature is the great equalizer. Nature is free to be enjoyed by all humans no matter what their socio-economic status. When society seems to divide people into categories (rich and poor, have and have-not), nature is there to remind us that when you strip away the labels and signifiers, we are all the same.

Animals also play a big symbolic role in Arnold’s films (i.e.: the horse in Fishtank, the bee in American Honey, the wasp in Wasp). Animals serve as reminders of the fragility and brutality of life— i.e.: the bee in American Honey has a brush with death. The animals also seem to symbolism the young character’s loss of innocence— or their coming-of-age.

I will explore how Arnold is concerned with representing young people, particularly young women, who face adversity with imagination and bravery. Poor youth is a demographic that doesn’t usually get a lot of screen time, especially in Hollywood. However, perhaps there’s a missed opportunity to give these characters even more agency beyond just representation by letting us know more about how they feel about their situation through discourse on screen. Richard Brody wrote in the New Yorker that the “youth in American Honey are silent.”

I will look at how Arnold’s gender might have factored into the way she tells stories— i.e.: she always has a female protagonist, and deals a lot with female sexuality. I’ll specifically analyze the ways Arnold handles sex scenes on screen through all three case study films.

Discussion of Films: Fishtank, American Honey, Red Road

In my paper on Andrea Arnold and the issue of representing youth and lower-income characters on screen, I will focus on three films— Fishtank, Wuthering Heights, and American Honey, where young characters deal directly or indirectly with the circumstances of their backgrounds. I will also analyze the stylistic and thematic similarities of the three case study films.

In Fishtank Arnold offers a representation of the cycle of poverty, and its grip on a young woman striving to get out. The protagonist, Mia, has a chance to break the cycle by escaping the small town and projects where her family lives. Dance is a way for Mia to transcend her tough surroundings. By the end of the film, Mia has escaped her town, which comes right after she discovers the wild horse that had been tethered to the pole has died— poetic symbolism. Mia is the first of her family to take this bold leap.

In American Honey Arnold explores the excessive gap between class in America when the “mag” crew enters a rich suburban neighborhood to solicit rich families, but they also enter neighborhoods that are similar to their own— which are more economically depressed. The film takes an observational approach to the economic division which perhaps leaves an opportunity on the table. The film provides little insight into the characters thoughts about the situation and their backgrounds. The filmmaker seems to not want to take a strong stance either way, rather let the viewer experience what the characters experience.

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