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Andrea Arnold Drama With Barry Keoghan & Franz Rogowski

Andrea Arnold Drama With Barry Keoghan & Franz Rogowski

British auteur Andrea Arnold follows up her last feature, the poignant, non-verbal slice-of-farmyard-life that is the documentary Cow, with a new member of her cinematic menagerie: drama Bird, an uplifting competitor for Cannes’ Palme d’Or.

With mostly human characters and actual dialogue, in some ways this is taxonomically more like her gritty-as-asphalt, early social-realist work, especially Fish Tank and Oscar-winning short Wasp, which, like Bird, were shot in the southerly county of Kent, U.K., where Arnold grew up. But then suddenly, out of the milieu’s marshy semi-urban landscape of empty beer cans, cigarette butts, domestic abuse and despair, the film takes magical-realist flight and transforms into something unlike anything Arnold’s done before. Thanks to the director’s magisterial knack with actors (especially non-professionals such as terrific adolescent discovery Nykiya Adams, who, as the protagonist, is in nearly every frame of the film), the result is quite entrancing.


The Bottom Line

Flies high.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Nykiya Adams, Jason Edward Buda, James Nelson Joyce, Barry Keoghan, Jasmine Jobson, Frankie Box, Franz Rogowski
Director/screenwriter: Andrea Arnold

1 hour 59 minutes

That said, at times this teeters on the brink of sentimentality, as if all that time Arnold has spent in the U.S. directing episodes of upscale television (Big Little Lies, Transparent, I Love Dick) has rubbed off and added a kind of American-indie-style slickness to the script — a tidy, over-workshopped tightness that the raw early films and American Honey mostly eschewed. But that may be exactly what some viewers will love about Bird. Given the presence of stars like Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski (both of them amping up the Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski-ness of it all to the max), this could be Arnold’s most commercial feature film.

Like nearly all of Arnold’s previous films, even Cow at a stretch, Bird takes pains to show all the beauty and the bloodshed, to borrow a phrase from Nan Goldin’s life, of working-class life. That means copping to the fact there is violence, addictive behavior and outright neglect within families, the sort of stuff middle-class folks primly call “bad parenting.” At the same time, “neglect” can also produce self-reliance and independence in children, who in this film are often seen running around the streets by themselves, playing unsupervised, older ones looking after younger ones, inventing their own games like “jump on the disused mattress in the front yard” and so on. All of it is exactly the sort of stuff kids got up to in the proverbial old days, the golden-hued mythical past that was also supposedly so much better than things are now.

Twelve-year-old Bailey (Adams) certainly has a remarkable amount of freedom, maybe a little too much. She lives in a large, squatted building in Gravesend, a ramshackle property — festooned with graffiti and furnished with furniture that looks like it was salvaged from a dumpster — that houses quite a few people in apartments on each floor, many of them animal lovers like Bailey and her family. On the floor Bailey lives on, she shares a space with her dad Bug (Keoghan, having an absolute blast), an unemployed party animal whose latest get-rich-quick scheme is to harvest the hallucinogenic slime off an imported toad, called “the drug toad” throughout. Bailey’s slightly older half-brother Hunter (Jason Edward Buda), who was born when Bug himself was only 14, also lives there, although he spends a lot of time with his “gang” (really just a bunch of kids) and his girlfriend, Moon.

As the film opens, Bailey learns that Bug plans on marrying Kayleigh (Frankie Box), his latest squeeze whom he’s only been dating for three months. The wedding is set for this coming Saturday, and when Bailey refuses to wear or even try on the sequined, pink, leopard-skin patterned catsuit Kayleigh has picked out for her and her own daughter to wear as bridesmaids, there’s a noisy row between Bailey and Bug that gets a little physical.

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Later on, we meet Bailey’s mother Peyton (Jasmine Jobson), who lives in another house across town that seems perpetually full of high 20somethings in the living room. Upstairs in Peyton’s bed, there’s a monstrous new boyfriend named Skate (James Nelson Joyce). Peyton’s kids, Bailey’s three younger siblings (it’s not clear who their dad is), fend for themselves as best they can. Subtly dropped hints in the dialogue suggest Bailey went to live with Bug at a young age, and feels unwanted by her mother. Guilt, anger, recrimination and hurtful words drift all around this family, like poplar tree fluff in June.

It’s a crowded extended community where everyone kind of knows each other and Hunter and his buddies dish out vigilante violence to people rumored to have hurt kids or their friends. But one day, a stranger arrives among them: Bird (Rogowski). Dressed in a swingy skirt and a complexly cabled thrift-shop sweater, the German-accented Bird has a fey, otherworldly quality about him. Like the seagulls and ravens that Bailey is drawn to and often films on her cellphone (clearly she’s a budding filmmaker), Bird is enigmatic, itinerant, restless and fundamentally other. After doing a charming, flappy dance around a field for Bailey’s camera, he flounces off to town to look for his parents in a tower block. Gradually, he and Bailey become friends — or as much as two wild creatures of different species can be friends.

Arnold starts dropping little hints early on that some supernatural or fantastical force is at work here, and it would spoil the movie to reveal too much. It all gets quite plot-heavy for an Arnold film. For example, nothing much at all happens in American Honey for massive stretches, which was charming and tedious in equal measures. This one has last-minute dashes to stop people leaving on trains, a melodramatic backstory reveal, and even visual-effects-generated surprises involving visits from yet more members of the animal kingdom. (Spoiler: It’s an adorable fox!) Indeed, throughout, there are shots of bees, butterflies, crows and all manner of urban beasties, underscoring the fecundity of the Kentish landscape: a compellingly primal mix of wild estuarine marshes with factories, beaches fringed with lurid amusement arcades and unattractive attractions, a sense of faded, sticky and sand-flecked splendor gone to seed.

And yet, despite the palpable darkness in the corners of the story and the pervasive sense of melancholy, the film ends on a gloriously optimistic, cotton-candy-scented note of joy. Nearly the whole ensemble enjoys a line dance to “Cotton Eye Joe,” a needle drop almost as good as the opening electric-scooter ride sequence set to Fontaines DC’s punky, atonal song “Too Real.” As per usual, Arnold picks a killer soundtrack, and she loves to get her cast dancing.

Keoghan, of course, obliges, offering a little throwback to his end-reel naked romp in Saltburn. (A character can be heard at one point dissing that viral moment’s backing track, “Murder on the Dance Floor,” only for another character to confess he loves that song.) Rogowski, who threw a mean shape or two in such films as Disco Boy and Passages, also contributes a very physical performance, cavorting around Gravesend like a shy woodland faun or fowl. It’s enough to send an audience out feeling giddy and a smidge weepy in the best sort of way.

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