Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Andrea Arnold’s 25-minute short film ‘Wasp’, starring Natalie Press and Danny Dyer, won the 2005 Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action. Let that sink in. Danny Dyer has an Oscar-winning film on his CV. Fuck me, it’s a strange life.
‘Wasp’ is something of a precursor to Arnold’s second feature length film ‘Fish Tank’ (review on Agitation shortly), and I’m betting that the Oscar win helped in no small way towards getting her feature debut, ‘Red Road’, into production.
Set against the same council estate backdrop of ‘Fish Tank’, ‘Wasp’ tells a slight but affecting story. Zoe (Press) is a single mother; her four children are various ages, one still a baby, and for all that her parenting skills fall somewhere between “questionable” and “abject failure”, she seems fiercely protective of them to the point of getting into a fight with the mother of a child who was mean to them. Zoe comes off worse, but she and her kids remain defiant nonetheless.
It’s as they’re walking back through the estate following this confrontation that Zoe encounters Dave (Dyer), a not-quite-boyfriend from the past (“you were with Mark, I don’t go after other blokes’ women”). Initially flustered, she pretends that she’s looking after a friend’s children and agrees to meet him at a pub that evening.
The scenario sounds it should be the stuff of comedy: Zoe desperately trying to keep an eye on her brood while persuading Dave she’s still the carefree single girl from way back when. An ‘Abigail’s Party’ for the new millennium. The next sequence, back at Zoe’s grim towerblock flat, promptly puts the kibosh on such expectations. A wasp crawls on a dirty windowpane; Zoe counts and recounts the handful of coins left in her purse; the kids eventually clamour for food. Her kitchen cupboards yield nothing but an almost empty bag of sugar. “Share it out,” she instructs her brood; “try to make it last.” Press’s performance is pitch-perfect: the steely determination on the surface to inculcate her children as to the reality of things; the vulnerable, sad, ashamed person just visible beneath.
With no-one to look after them, Zoe reluctantly takes the kids to the pub, literally hiding them round the corner in the car park. She’s dolled up to the nines and it’s obvious to a degree that’s almost painful how desperately she’s clinging onto the prospect of happiness in an ad hoc date with a wide-boy at a shitty dive of a pub. Zoe’s actions are, by any measure, horrific: she essentially abandons her children for several hours with just a packet of crisps and a small Coca-Cola between them, leaving them to amuse themselves and, later, as daylight fades and the temperature drops, huddle together. Hunger gets the better of them and a take-away dropped by some drunken youths is too tempting despite its acquaintanceship with the pavement and the presence of our old friend the wasp buzzing around a dustbin nearby.
What happens next is squeamish to watch and the blame is entirely Zoe’s. That you don’t hate her as the credits roll is equal parts due to script, director and actress. ‘Wasp’ nails the poverty of life in Britain’s underprivileged areas, how little an entire stratum of society has to aspire to or hope for, and how pathetically small the measures by which it determines happiness or even a minor distraction from the norm. When Zoe totters out into the car park in her high heels to give her kids their meagre libations, they’re initially truculent and Zoe’s response is vehement; then a song she likes drifts out of the pub and immediately her mood changes and she encourages them to start dancing. A lyric from Pulp came to mind: “Then you drink and dance and screw / Because there’s nothing else to do”. Zoe doesn’t even accomplish the third of these before real life and her epic parenting failures come screaming into her faux idyll.