Short of the Week

Wasp

The 2003 Oscar winner, this film is a searing and intimate portrait of a single-mom and her 4 children in contemporary Britain.

So you want to make movies, do you? Feature films? You’re “realistic” though at least: you don’t want to helm the latest super-hero franchise, but you’d like to be able to make small, personal films on modest budgets. You’d like to have idealistic producers and financiers dedicated to your vision and talent, and wouldn’t mind flattering writeups in Filmmaker Mag and warm receptions at Sundance. Well then this is the type of short film you need to make.

Andrea Arnold is the young filmmaking treasure of the UK, a nation rich in filmic traditions, but notably insecure about its standing in the world cinema community. She has been held up as the emblematic icon of the the country’s generous production grant system—funds from the UK Film Council in 2003 directly lead to the creation of this short film, the subsequent success of which won Arnold both Oscar and a sustainable filmmaking career. It is an older short film than we generally feature, but this week has earned Arnold quite a bit of talk as her third feature film, a controversial re-telling of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Heathcliff is black!), has caused a stir at the Venice film festival.

Wasp is the realist tale of a young modern woman, mired in poverty, who desperately wants something for herself aside from the oppressive limitatons of being a single-mother of four. Despite the responsibility she bears, when an old crush unexpectedly resurfaces she takes the opportunity to go out on a date, behaving agonizingly irresponsibly. Do not be scared off by its long runtime, it is a short film that is truly phenomenal in story, subject and technique.

If Britain has a filmmaking movement worthy of study in World Cinema 101, then it is surely British Social Realism. A potent combination of Italian Neo-Realism’s minimalist production style with Soviet Constructivist preoccupations with social class, the movement had its hey-day in the 60′s with exemplary films created by the likes of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Lindsay Anderson. Relatively fallow for several years, Wasp has been credited as reviving the genre in the UK, and many recent, award-winning short films have mined this territory. The short has gained the status of modern classic through Arnold’s sensitive humanistic approach, combined with modern filmmaking techniques.

It is a bit of gushing, but it is phenomenal how much this film gets right. First its shooting style. Hand-held photography has been overused in recent years, but Wasp in 2003 used it properly. Arnold expertly mixes extreme closeups and extreme long-shots to set the scene and the create visual coherence, yet preserve a fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Shots that focus on the characters give way to well-composed shots of nature, combining the staid, naturalist impulses of Japanese cinema with action-oriented shaky cam. The sequence where the family walks down to the bar in particular is a masterpiece.

The level of deftness in the writing and presentation is also stellar. Wasp is a film populated by gray characters, and its sequences provoke such mixed feelings in the audience. While the mother’s actions are unconscionable, they are also understandable. She is young herself, and her neediness is so nakedly presented. The way she gets tarted up for the date, the Beckham-connection that she asks her daughter to stop re-telling, are tell-tale signs of a woman who needs something to feel good about, but has precious little to draw upon in her own life. Even the old suitor, he is so expertly set up as a heel: the smooth lines, the crappy car, the way he makes our young mother pay for the first round—we are prepared to hate him, but that is expert manipulation on Arnold’s part. Like a young Hitchcock, she draws the tension out so slowly and mannerly that we are prepared to snap, yet, from his perspective, trying to get a young girl into bed is really not so unexcusable, ignorant as he is of the context she has placed her young children.

The hidden desperation of young women is Britain is a topic that has suited Arnold well, it is territory she mined in 2009′s indie-hit Fish Tank, a film that featured excellent acting from Michael Fassbender among others. Directing the actor is an undervalued skill in short film, and Wasp is notable for the performances Arnold receives. The child acting particularly, a difficult proposition for any filmmaker to do well, is nothing short of astonishing. With limited focus, they managed to be wholly formed characters; the performance of the elder girl who must frequently assume the role of surrogate mother, being especially poignant.

I mention that Wasp has achieved the status of modern classic, so it behooves you to watch. We’re in the slow season for short films, so dramatic live-action has gotten the short shrift on this site in the last few weeks, but this is a perfect reintroduction. To consider oneself a short film fan, I would almost say Wasp is mandatory viewing. Enjoy.

 

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Co-Founder of Short of the Week, Sondhi lives in Brooklyn working as a Curator for Vimeo. Follow his musings on online video, direct distribution and branded content: @jasondhi.
  • FeloniousPunk

    Wow, I didn’t know if I’d make it all the way through the 24 minutes, but they just flew by. Andrea Arnold’s later feature “Fish Tank” (2009) basically duplicates these themes and moods. Both pretty stellar, except for that darn special effects moment, ugh!

  • Shahir Daud

    We watched and talked about Wasp a helluva lot during production on Double Happy – Wasp is probably one of my all time favorite short films

  • Hans J. Eiðisgarð

    thanks for posting this one. I really loved Fish Tank, but had never seen this one. By far the best film you’ve featured in many, many weeks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Thanks Hans! Though I wonder if there is a bit of a dig hidden in your comment =P

    I loved Fish Tank too which is why I ultimately caved and watched Wasp. I’d known about it from reputation, but I rarely watch 20min+ shorts, figuring that I can’t feature them on the site. I’m glad for the positive feedback, perhaps I’ll look to review a few more of these longer classics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Didn’t occur to me, but I’m not surprised, I can see the similarities. You did a good job in capturing that loose feeling of simply existing for a bit in the character’s lives, instead of rigidly progressing the plot. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Yeah, there is a an undergraduate compare/contrast paper out there waiting to be written about the two films. 

  • Hans J. Eiðisgarð

    Actually, I have not liked as many of the films you’ve featured lately as I have in the past. The only two films I have truly loved for the past few weeks are this one and that Drew Barrimore video. Quite a few have been alright, but few have been fantastic. And I can say the same thing about the shorts FilmSchooRejects have been posting, so maybe it’s just me having watched too many films lately

    Still looking forward to more shorts in the future, though :)

     

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Yeah, thanks for sharing your thoughts and being a good fan of the site. I think the last month has seen a lot films more noticeable for style than substance. We like both, but you always need balance. 

    Got some good stuff coming your way with dramas in the next couple of weeks, so be sure to keep checking back. 

  • Niki V

    I really loved Fish Tank – thought it was a masterpiece. But this short annoyed me. The young mother was too irresponsible. So much so that I couldn’t believe in her. She not only left the kids outside a pub, at night, to look after themselves, but it was clear she’d left them home alone more than once before. She wasn’t feeding them properly or looking after them. If she lived on the estate where I do, and where I grew up, she’d be likely to get battered sooner or later for treating her kids like that. It’s not done – make *no* mistake, this is not even close to typical of the way young working class mothers behave. I’m not saying there aren’t people like this, but they are few and far between. What’s more, the whole level of neglect and poverty meant I couldn’t believe in this story or the characters. Why was she so poor? What had she spent her benefits on? It wasn’t on the flat, or clothes for herself or the kids, or a car or big TV or any other belongings, so it wasn’t some shopping addiction or living outside her means. At the same time, there was absolutely no evidence of a drug or alcohol problem. It just wasn’t realistic that she hadn’t been able to feed the kids for several days. Yes, this film had a good script, the characters were finely sketched and brought to life and the photography was stunning. But the lack of reality in the situation I saw in front of me stopped me from fully appreciating any of the other parts. Which was a shame, because if the woman’s situation had been portrayed more realistically, with more evidence that she cared about her kids and would die for them, this would have been my kind of film *completely*

  • Niki V

    I really loved Fish Tank – thought it was a masterpiece. But this short annoyed me. The young mother was too irresponsible. So much so that I couldn’t believe in her. She not only left the kids outside a pub, at night, to look after themselves, but it was clear she’d left them home alone more than once before. She wasn’t feeding them properly or looking after them. If she lived on the estate where I do, and where I grew up, she’d be likely to get battered sooner or later for treating her kids like that. It’s not done – make *no* mistake, this is not even close to typical of the way young working class mothers behave. I’m not saying there aren’t people like this, but they are few and far between. What’s more, the whole level of neglect and poverty meant I couldn’t believe in this story or the characters. Why was she so poor? What had she spent her benefits on? It wasn’t on the flat, or clothes for herself or the kids, or a car or big TV or any other belongings, so it wasn’t some shopping addiction or living outside her means. At the same time, there was absolutely no evidence of a drug or alcohol problem. It just wasn’t realistic that she hadn’t been able to feed the kids for several days. Yes, this film had a good script, the characters were finely sketched and brought to life and the photography was stunning. But the lack of reality in the situation I saw in front of me stopped me from fully appreciating any of the other parts. Which was a shame, because if the woman’s situation had been portrayed more realistically, with more evidence that she cared about her kids and would die for them, this would have been my kind of film *completely*

  • John Doe

    That has to be great for children to learn to be hood rats at such a young age even if it is film. Stupid wankers.