Remember being 15? Everyone seems like such an asshole, and no one’s more of a douche than you. Interactions with your mom amount to screaming matches. Seems like nothing’s going to get better, either. Your hair won’t do what you want and your body’s all over the place — childish in parts and alarmingly womanly in others. Your entire world seems small, stupid. If you’re lucky, you have one thing you’re good at. In Andrea Arnold’s spectacular Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis)’s one thing is hip-hop dancing. She sneaks upstairs in their depressing council estate flat to an empty apartment, turns on the music, and works on perfecting her moves. I can’t remember seeing a film like this that shows us the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old so intimately — we’re always with Mia, sharing that lonely, locked-in feeling with her, never looking at her. It’s an extraordinary way to put the viewer into a 15-year-old’s head.

Things shift when suddenly her very young single mother Joanne has a new man in her life — Connor (Michael Fassbender), an Irish guy who just doesn’t fit into the council estate world. He’s so cute, has a middle-class job and a practical man’s car, and expresses such paternal ease and a light touch with Mia and her little sister: what’s he doing with the trashy, foul-mouthed Joanne? And here’s where Arnold captures Mia so perfectly. She doesn’t know whether she wants to flirt with Connor or turn him into the father figure who’d give their lives more stability; she wants both, of course. Because we see everything through Mia’s eyes, we wonder whether Connor is sending mixed signals — and we’re a bit alarmed to realize that we hope he is, even as a sense of unease grows about this seemingly nice guy.

When you’re 15, anything can happen to you — and Mia’s clearly on that precipice. Teenage pregnancy and/or rape are more likely in her precarious world than education or another path to mobility. When she looks at her improbably blonde, half-dressed, alcoholic mother, we know a lot of the venom between them results from the fact that they both know Mia might follow that path too. That’s why her hip-hop dancing is so evocative. It might be private, almost secret, but it gives her power and control over her lanky 15-year-old limbs. Yet being a good dancer gives you no marketable skill. “You dance like a Black,” Connor tells her when he catches her dancing in their miserable little kitchen, she in her pyjamas and he shirtless, unknown. “It’s a compliment,” he clarifies, creating a little bit of confidentiality between them. She scowls, flattered and invaded and attracted. Could dancing be a way out for her? Is she still dancing for herself, or is she dancing for him? When Connor plays Bobby Womack’s haunting, 1960s mellow soul cover of “California Dreamin’,” it means too much to Mia — it becomes their song.

Americans don’t like to watch films about the poor, proclaiming them “depressing,” yet these stories are so real that it seems Katie Jarvis herself is living this life. She had no acting experience when she was discovered for this part fighting with her boyfriend on a train platform. She’d already left school without a diploma, was unemployed, and learned all the dance moves during the filming, giving them a sweet uncertainty. By the time the film was screened at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize, the first of many awards and nominations for the film) Jarvis was pregnant, limiting her capacity to take more roles.

When she was interviewed by UK’s The Guardian Jarvis explained her life with telling caution and honesty: “Whereas before I was doing nothing all the time [the film] made me learn that I could do things if I wanted to do it. It was hard, but it was fun and rewarding. Now I want to make the most of it. It shows that you don’t have to go to drama school to get into it, but I think I was one of a kind, I don’t think anyone else will get picked off a train station.”

Whether or not she gets more parts, she’s extraordinary in this film, which is easily in my Top Five of last year (it was released in a very limited way in the US in 2010) and one of my favorites of the whole decade. It’s so much better than An Education, which I really liked (see here for A. O. Scott’s reasons for agreeing with this point), and probably even better than Winter’s Bone which I keep singing about. I keep this blog for the hope of seeing films like this and spreading the news about them. It’s streaming on Netflix now — watch it and feel this filmmaker’s amazing vision of what it means to look through the eyes of a 15-year-old. And let’s keep watching for more from Andrea Arnold and Katie Jarvis.

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Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.

“Father, father, where are you going?
Oh do not walk so fast!
Speak, father, speak to you little boy,
Or else I shall be lost.”

The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.
William Blake, “Little Boy Lost,” Songs of Innocence

Men and women learn different lessons from the movies about the loss of innocence.  For women, loss of innocence always seems to be sexual; for men it’s something far more interesting, political, profound — and is often contrasted to sex.  William Blake’s 18th-century poems weren’t the first to characterize those gender differences, and we keep reiterating them now.

I got onto this subject due to a conversation about my list of best films, which led me to watch “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” again — about privileged, popular Julien (Gaspard Manesse), whose Catholic boys’ school hides three Jewish boys during the darkest days of 1944.  He competes most with Jean (an angelic-looking Raphaël Fejtö), who’s just as smart and well-read as Julien, and plays the piano so beautifully that he impresses the lovely piano teacher they all have crushes on.

This scene is the perfect exemplar of the mood of much of the film:  Julien is still a child, such that you cringe with the fear he’ll torment Jean for all the petty reasons boys bully each other.  Yet he’s also beginning to be tempted by girls. One of its sweetest scenes takes place late at night, as the two boys read the sexiest bits from The Arabian Nights and wonder what they mean.  The film keeps reminding you that they’re neither boys nor men:  one night, as the boys sleep, Julien wakes himself up from what you initially think is a wet dream.  Actually he’s wet the bed.

Their innocence makes the many small betrayals of the Nazi era all the more horrific, betrayals that begin to creep into the edges of their world.  At first, the boys only notice the sexual crimes.  Julien’s older brother accuses their mother of having affairs and flirting with men — even Nazi soldiers — because her vanity makes her weak.  The hobbled, working-class boy who works at the school and sells stamps and marbles to schoolboys on the sly cries out in anguish, in front of everyone, when his love abruptly leaves him.  But then the “real” crimes begin — and the film makes sure we see them as such.  Vichy collaborator police demand that a Jewish diner leave a restaurant; the schoolboys engage in antisemitic banter, not knowing their classmates are Jews.

But the worst betrayal is Julien’s, shortly after he learns the truth about Jean’s real identity.  When the Nazis arrive at the school and demand that the priests turn over the Jewish boys, it is Julien’s frantic glance at his friend that leads them straight to Jean.  As the soldiers march the three boys out of the grounds, Julien and Jean wave goodbye to each other — one of those beautifully awful moments that acknowledges and forgives Julien’s betrayal, and perches the viewer in between the false hope that Jean will survive the camps and the knowledge that he won’t.  Innocence lost.

There are other films, too, that explicitly show that a boy’s sexual awakening has nothing to do with his “real” loss of innocence.  Think of Shane Meadows’ “This Is England,” a semi-autobiographical tale of a lonely boy in the early 80s drawn to the skinheads who give him a sense of belonging — and even a girlfriend — but the real story comes when he must make a decision about his friends’ racism.

Or “The Year of Living Dangerously,” set in Indonesia in the early 60s.  Even though Linda Hunt was categorized as a supporting actor (and won the Academy Award), her male character, Billy Kwan, is truly the film’s protagonist.  Kwan dreams of a revitalized nation under a righteous leader and believes that Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), an Australian foreign correspondant, can help realize and publicize the newly-installed Sukarno as that good man; to urge Hamilton to become more invested in the country, Kwan introduces him to the elegant and seemingly unattainable Jill (Sigourney Weaver).  But as beautiful as Gibson and Weaver are — their love scenes were the hottest things I’d ever seen when I first saw the film as a kid — they are merely bit characters in a larger drama about lost innocence. (And how ironic that Mel Gibson has betrayed us since, just as his ambitious character is so disappointing to Kwan in the film.)  When Hamilton realizes how much he failed Kwan, he recalls Kwan’s voice telling him that “all is clouded by desire” — a lesson to men everywhere that women and sex are mere illusions that cloud their understanding.

Or my favorite film of all time, Carroll Reed’s magnificent “The Third Man” (1949),  in which the cheerful American (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna looking for his old buddy, Orson Welles — but finds instead that postwar Europe has no place for love, hope, or an easy good guy/bad guy dichotomy, as shown in the classic scene in the ferris wheel.  Cotten wants Welles’ old girlfriend, but his crush is merely another example of his deluded optimism.  Reed even goes so far as to take the film away from Cotten in the end, turning Welles into the anti-hero protagonist as he races through Vienna’s sewers to escape the police — such that the viewer becomes just as disoriented as poor Joseph Cotten.  Every time I see the film it hits me powerfully as a reminder of the contrast between Americans’ postwar optimism and European malaise, a malaise it would take decades for us to realize and wrestle with.

In each film, sex gets portrayed as a mere sideline issue for male protagonists.  These films teach us that for men, love and sex aren’t the most profound aspects of a man’s life; but they’re crucial to films about the loss of female innocence.  One need only think of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) descending from sexual respectability in “The House of Mirth” and the film/book’s long literary tradition of similar cautionary tales, right up to the beautiful “An Education” of last year.  If Bart becomes tragic in “House of Mirth,” “An Education” is a bildungsroman — Carey Mulligan’s relationship with Peter Sarsgaard sours, but it’s nevertheless love and sex that serve as the transformative educational juncture in her life.

It’s a great film but a small triumph for female characters.  Maybe I’m missing something and there’s a film in which a female protagonist’s love turns out to be a mere side issue in her coming-of-age or loss-of-innocence tale, while she is awakened to broader matters of the political or adult world.  But after racking my brain for an example of this, I’m still struck by the contrast of Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” and “Little Girl Lost” poems — for girls, it’s always about sex, and for boys it’s decidedly not.

These narratives matter.  They affect how men and women see their own life stories.

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.

In the age of gold,
Free from winter’s cold,
Youth and maiden bright,
To the holy light,
Naked in the sunny beams delight.

William Blake, “Little Girl Lost,” Songs of Experience

“I Know Where I’m Going” — I’ve seen it probably five times now and can attest that it’s a really good film that gets better on multiple viewings. It could be seen as the film that inspired “Local Hero” with its elegiac images of the Scottish coast, except here the redemption comes in the form of love with the right man. If you’ve never seen it, prepare yourself for a quiet movie with the slightly improbable matchup of the brittle Wendy Hiller and the goofy-looking Roger Livesey (who, at 40-ish, simply could not pass for the early 30s he’s supposed to be). But their acting is perfect: Livesey is a good man; Hiller is redeemed. 

Oh, the makeover narrative — a stock aspect of the “woman’s” film. Most fully realized in Pride and Prejudice (in which both Elizabeth and Darcy must change) and satisfyingly re-created in the BBC version of “North and South” (curiously, not in the Gaskell novel, however), this storyline appeals again and again.  It’s worth noting that love isn’t always the main plot device; highly satisfying makeover narratives appear in films such as Judy Davis in “My Brilliant Career” all the way through the winsome Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” Clearly, the transformation doesn’t need a wedding altar scene at the end.

We can argue about the implications of narratives that transform the heroine through love, but let’s quickly point out the differences between female and male makeovers. First, I believe that female makeover tales most often require interesting male counterparts, three-dimensional creatures interesting on their own — whereas male makeover films seem to invariably feature what Nathan Rabin of The Onion calls the “manic pixie dream girl archetype.” Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Sandra Bullock in “Forces of Nature,” these women’s unpredictability and full embrace of life allows them to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is pure plot device, not a character worthy of an inner life or transformation. (Sidebar: Holly Welker has a piece this month that ties this archetype to Helen Andelin’s 1963 classic, Fascinating Womanhood, a book that might be termed the anti-Feminine Mystique [also published 1963].) The manic pixie dream girl merely permits the elaboration of self by the man.

It’s not that Roger Livesey is a terrifically complex figure in “I Know Where I’m Going,” but he’s the embodiment of the magic of Scotland’s Western Isles — poor but noble (like his namesake, the Colonel’s golden eagle), modest and well-mannered, familiar with everyone on the island, and a fine contrast to the rich industrialist Hiller intends to marry. Livesey grows on her, and on us; his aging, goofy looks become handsome as his admirable qualities become more pronounced. We imagine their marriage as a happy partnership of equals. Likewise, Peter Sarsgaard might have stolen “An Education” had it not been for the perfect performance by Mulligan — he subtly transforms from dashing to oh-so-slightly fleshy and deluded during the course of the film. His initial glamour is slowly exposed as a lack of depth as it becomes clear that the con man is conning himself, while Mulligan gains complexity by learning the hard way.

Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Drew Barrymore’s male counterparts in her string of makeover movies (“Home Fries,” “Never Been Kissed”) weren’t three-dimensional, either. But take a look at how hard Livesey works in this scene to mitigate the snarky comments by the locals about Hiller’s fiancé. He’s a good man. Makeover movie: I sing to your female protagonists and worthy male counterparts.