Andrea Arnold gave us Fish Tank in 2009, but seven years later she stepped up to the plate again and connected so sweetly you’ll have tears in your eyes as it disappears behind the sun. AH is perhaps the best new film I’ve seen since A Separation.
Star starts in a dumpster, dropping nauseating discarded food into the clutching hands of a young boy below. She’s responsible for two children, though it becomes clear that they aren’t hers – she looks after them while their father is out all day. He refers to himself as “Daddy” while he gropes Star in the evenings, the dinner she has made for him going cold, the old family photos over his shoulder bringing tears of desperation to her eyes. She needs an opportunity to flee and the arrival in town of a vanload of raucous teenagers, following Shia Labeouf’s suggestive tune, is good enough for her. They travel the country as a crew selling magazines to any and every community (AA compares them to Big Issue sellers in the UK, however: they’re selling actually themselves) and partying in the evenings.
Like a miraculous collaboration between Harmony Korine and Ken Loach. The documentary approach is compressed into the closeup empiricism of Moonlight, putting us inside Star’s head as she fights to balance her own identity with communal conformity. The gang variously appears adversarially chaotic and unconditionally welcoming, a cohesive unit and a fractious coexistence of individuals – kind of like any group of teenage friends. Korine’s acidic sensibility is, importantly, traded in for a kind of ecstatic realism which kept reminding me of Elysia Crampton. The gang’s music is hypermodern, infectious both emotionally and lyrically, like the blasts of Lil John that drill through the geological sandwiching of EC’s pieces. In AH the critical acceptance and celebration is specifically of youth culture – I think it’s important that these guys are a mess but ultimately appear rather harmless.
The storytelling is abstract but excellently paced and, for the most part, very tense. This is because Star constantly puts herself in situations of peril; we telegraph them but it is often unclear whether she has, such is her combination of innocence and experience. Scenes like her tantrum in the upper-class detached house, her manipulation of the wealthy southern men with the mescal, and her rendezvous with the grimy and sinister oil worker have you holding your breath and remind you of the unease throughout Fish Tank. The problems with the societies beyond the group, within which the group appear comparatively wholesome, are essential to the dynamics of sympathy. I loved the incongruous final transaction, with the young children politely accommodating Star with their meth-addict mother oblivious in the next room, Star returning with groceries.
Another chapter in the story started by the neo-realists: ordinary people in films about ordinary people. I watched the press conference at Cannes for AH this morning and was fascinated but not surprised to hear that most of the kids involved not only had past lives in this business, but were actually carrying it out while shooting was taking place. There’s a scene where the gang interact naturally with a mirror group of African Americans; AA mentions that this group were the real thing, simply wandered over and started talking. Labeouf – who is volatile but idealistic, a latterday Steinbeck character, and makes excellent use of his age difference from Star – spent time with a gang like this before filming started.
A Trump era classic for sure.