No Happiness Please, We’re British

Photo: Holly Horner/Courtesy of IFC Films

The young British actress Kate Jarvis is in nearly every shot of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and her wide face, soft eyes, and flickering mixture of longing and potty-mouthed defiance draw you in and keep you guessing over what she’ll do next. As Mia, a 15-year-old who lives with her nasty little sister and self-centered single mother in a housing project, she’s high-strung and endlessly reactive, with a slightly feral quality. Early on, Mia hunts down a pal who dropped her, then promptly head-butts a girl who calls her skanky and breaks her nose. As she stomps away, you can feel her insides churn over her loss of control, and Arnold’s handheld camera is both on her and with her, the emotion in every jitter and swerve. Alone in a vacant apartment, Mia practices hip-hop to her portable CD player and tiny speakers, then gazes through the window at the world outside. Her dancing helps to channel her feelings, but despite big dreams she’s no Billy Elliot, and her accent and snaggly English teeth remind you where she comes from and what she’s up against. It’s her energy, her attack that convinces you she won’t go down without a fight.

Arnold’s first feature, Red Road (2006), centers on another outsider, a woman who monitors security cameras. The film is formally brilliant, but it doesn’t have the breathtaking openness of Fish Tank. Michael Fassbender plays her mom’s handsome new boyfriend, Connor, who encourages Mia’s dancing and gazes on her with sympathy and affection. Also with sexual hunger: When Mia pretends to be asleep, Connor carries her to her bed, and Arnold slows down and eroticizes the moment. When he leaves and her eyes open, you see she’s more aroused than he is. Fassbender’s Connor is never as nakedly manipulative as Peter Sarsgaard’s predatory Jew in the overrated An Education. When Connor yields to temptation, his first reaction is shame and fear; he sees the bottom fall out of his life.

Near the end, Mia is overcome with hate and on impulse does something shocking, nearly unforgivable. The sequence goes just to the verge of tragedy, but Arnold is too compassionate to deliver the ultimate blow. The final scenes have a transcendent mixture of hope and sadness. I’ve never seen anything like Mia’s final dance, or the leave-taking with her little sister that follows. In Fish Tank, nothing goes right, yet Mia’s fate never seems preordained. Her constant motion might or might not be her salvation, but it keeps you in suspense until the last frame—and beyond.

Miguel Arteta’s rollicking Youth in Revolt is one of several recent movies to elevate the generic coming-of-age teen sex comedy to a plane of surrealism. Superbad was a near-mythic odyssey into the unruly American libido, Gentlemen Broncos a crazed, Mormonism-fueled study in sublimation. I love this new breed of dirty movie. It goes beyond leering, beyond sexism, to the core tension of a culture that ricochets between Puritanism and promiscuity. And it has in Michael Cera a sterling mascot.

Cera is the least sexually threatening juvenile in history. He’s skinny and hairless, with zero muscle tone and a high head-voice that an eighteenth-century castrato would have killed for. To avoid projecting hysteria, he affects a glassy deadpan. Yet he speaks fast and with startling precision, as if hyperarticulateness might cover for his uncontainable bodily functions. In Youth in Revolt, Cera has a marvelous pedestal for his sexual panic.

Part farce, part fever dream, the movie is based on a novel by C. D. Payne called Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp—the twitty, wispy moniker fitting Cera like a glove, and not the kind you wear in winter. A disarming beauty named Portia Doubleday plays the irrepressibly teasing Sheeni Saunders, who’s turned on by everything French. So Nick concocts an alter-ego called “François Dillinger” (played by Cera with a pencil mustache) to liberate his id. Director Miguel Arteta keeps the action hurtling forward as Gustin Nash’s script piles on crisis after crisis to the brink of absurdism—calamities that Nick leaves behind as his drive to have Sheeni propels him on. He ends up running from police in his undies and at one point a dress; in classic screwball style, his libido both empowers and emasculates him. But when he tells her he’d like to tickle her bellybutton from the inside and she gasps in pleasure at his newfound effrontery, the humiliations he has gone through seem worth it. Of course, Youth in Revolt—like all the movies in this genre—is a straight-male fantasia. The hope is that women directors will come along and show horny boys the power of what they’re up against—along with the anxieties that, despite la différence, they have in common.

Joshua Goldin’s debut feature, Wonderful World, is a thesis drama, which means it comes to a philosophical point—which further means it’s easy to dismiss as too messagey. But its thesis isn’t pat. It doesn’t reduce its characters’ motives—it illuminates their contradictions. Matthew Broderick plays Ben Singer, a former musician (he made records for kids) who’s soured on the business and burned his bridges. Poor, divorced, working as a proofreader, he sees a culture that caters to people’s worst instincts, a culture he wants no part of. His negativity has infected his young daughter (Jodelle Ferland) to the point where she hides from him; his ex-wife (Ally Walker) says, “She still wants to think the world is a nice place.” Only Ben’s Senegalese flatmate Ibu (Michael K. Williams) offers a convincing counterargument. Over chess games he invariably wins, he talks about game theory, and its suggestion that people can act in ways both opportunistic and moral.

Game theory, at least as articulated here, is a pretty good way to approach the world without becoming either a spokesman for mindless positive thinking or a David Mamet–like cynic given to parables of betrayal and one-upmanship. And it’s a great way to survive Hollywood. When Ibu goes into a diabetic coma and his sister (Sanaa Lathan) arrives from Senegal, Ben falls in love and mounts a vindictive lawsuit against the city. Like a child, he both overidealizes and overblames. What’s fascinating about Broderick is how quickly he went from the can-do juvenile of WarGames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to the sad-sack embodiment of middle-aged defeat. But maybe he was so inspiring in his youth because you could glimpse the future worrywart. His rapport with Ferland is remarkable—and so is she, her confusion about what to make of the dad she loves right on the surface.

A lot of Wonderful World doesn’t jell, and Williams, who played Omar on The Wire, sports an accent so convincing you get only every third word—although maybe that’s a plus, considering his didactic lines. But the movie is unfailingly likable and finally impressive. Goldin doesn’t settle for easy answers, and he makes you think that no one should.

There’s no serious drama to speak of in The Last Station, which centers on the final days of Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) as two momentous forces compete for the rights to his life’s work: his wife (Helen Mirren), who wants to keep his estate and copyrights, and his acolyte (Paul Giamatti), who wants the world to have free access to his Christian-anarchist-pacifist-ascetic writings. Adorable James McAvoy as Tolstoy’s new aide has to choose sides: It’s Giamatti’s jowls and priggishness versus Mirren’s moist eyes and Kerry Condon’s lovely breasts. Some contest. The movie has its evocative moments, but it’s so rigged on the side of anti-intellectualism that you’d never guess that Tolstoy’s late work inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The tony cast emotes like mad, but polished Brits are so temperamentally unlike Russians that every four-syllable patronymic sounds like iambic pentameter.

My language cannot do justice to adman Nobuhiko Obayashi’s delirious 1977 Japanese horror-fantasy House, which will have its American theatrical premiere at the IFC Center. You’d have to imagine Pee-wee’s Playhouse with a witch that eats schoolgirls, only amped up by a factor of 100. The best thing in this wild assemblage of collage and cartoon and fairy tale is that the girls, when they’re eaten, scream with glee as their cut-out body parts spin around the frame. It’s cannibalism as the ultimate kiddie ride.

As Nick Twisp’s sophisticated trailer-park lover, Portia Doubleday makes her leading-lady debut. She had to take a leave from CalArts to do it, and all of her teachers granted her an “incomplete”—except for one. “My drama teacher, for this Theater 100 basic-basic-basic course said that I couldn’t miss the group project,” says Doubleday. “So my teacher gave me a D. The first ever in my life, and it’s in theater. Stupid theater. Yeah, there’s a little pent-up animosity.”

Fish Tank
Directed by Andrea Arnold.
IFC Films. NR.

Youth in Revolt
Directed by Miguel Arteta.
Dimension Films. R.

Wonderful World
Directed by Joshua Goldin.
Magnolia Pictures. R.

The Last Station
Directed by Michael Hoffman.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Janus Films. NR.


No Happiness Please, We’re British