Andrea Arnold, from ‘Fish Tank’ to ‘American Honey,’ Tells The Stories Of Teenage Girls

by Lauren C. Byrd

American Honey (2016)

Much like Mia, the young protagonist in Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold finds peace in dancing.

“Apparently, there was a Cambridge professor who did a study on happiness—it took him five years—and he came back and said dancing made people happy. I could have told him that in ten seconds! I’ve always loved dancing, but my New Year’s resolution is to dance every day. I don’t dance as much as I used to and I miss it, and I was thinking, why do you have to go anywhere? Just dance in your room. Maybe it was Mia who gave me the idea,” Arnold said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine.


 Arnold studied dance at GCSE as a pre-teen and teenager. She was born in Dartford, Kent. At the time of her birth, her mom was 16 and dad was 17. Arnold’s the eldest of four children but since her parents married at such a young age, they’d separated by the time Arnold was a young child. Her mother raised all four children on her own. Arnold’s Oscar winning short film, Wasp, is about a mother who raises four children on a estate council and many critics cited it as being autobiographical.

Always creative, Arnold wrote a play at 10 years old that expressed her “horror” of the slave trade. She studied dance before she left school at 16 to pursue acting. She got her first television jobs as a dancer on shows that included Top of the Pops. At 18, she moved to London where she began working as a host and actress for a children’s television show called No. 73 . She worked in television for a decade, writing on the side. Later, Arnold said of her experience on television, “Television was great fun and I went along for the ride, but I never felt comfortable in front of the camera.”

In the mid-1990s, she began writing a youth-oriented environmental series, A Beetle Called Derek. Working on the series, she yearned to direct. She studied film at American Film Institute in Los Angeles and upon returning to England, had a daughter with her longtime boyfriend, Alex, a software engineer.

She made three short films: Milk (1998), Dog (2001), and Wasp (2003). Wasp won Arnold the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.

In 2006, she directed the first installment, Red Road, of Advance Party, a planned set of three conceptually related films by different first-time directors. Red Road won Arnold comparisons with established names such as Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. The film also won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Arnold won a BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer.

Arnold worked on adapting Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects for French production company, Pathe, but the project never happened.

In 2009, Arnold revisited the working class locales of Wasp in her new feature, Fish Tank. Whereas Wasp concentrated on a young mother, this film closely follows 15-year-old Mia. Angry and frustrated with life at home with her cougar mother Joanne and younger sister Tyler, Mia doesn’t find solace in her peers, instead remaining a bit of a loner. She finds peace and self-expression in dance, finding an abandoned flat where she can practice her hip hop moves.

When her mother brings home a new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), Mia isn’t sure how to feel. She’s flattered by his attention and his support of her interests, but she’s also drawn to him on a more physical level. Even when she starts to realize Connor might not be who he appears to be, his encouragement seems to propel Mia to change her life and look for opportunities which could take her away from the council estate.

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“With the stories I’ve been telling,” Arnold said, “where you’re born and where you grow up has a huge impact on how your life is. Your circumstances and the things you’re born into are everything, especially when you’re young. I think that’s maybe why I get wrapped up with the environment and location when I’m filming. It matters and it says something about people—who they are and how they live.”

Fish Tank premiered at Cannes where it won the Jury Prize. It also won a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of 2010. “When I started Fish Tank, I was aware I was making another smaller film and some people said I should be making a bigger film with more money, perhaps even a Hollywood film. But I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of freedom. I’m pretty much making the films I want,” Arnold said in an interview with Time Out London. “I get more opportunities and offers of money for films now than I ever did.”

Arnold found Mia (Katie Jarvis) while researching the area in Essex where she shot the film. “We’d drive around and see a gang of kids on a green and go talk to them to see if there was anyone we could cast,” Arnold said. They found Jarvis when she was on a train platform having a fight with her boyfriend. “She thought we were pulling a fast one and wouldn’t give us her number.” But a few days later, Jarvis came to auditions.

Much like some other film directors, Arnold doesn’t like to show the script to the cast until right before filming. For Jarvis, she only gave her script pages a day or two ahead of time, so she wouldn’t get overwhelmed. Considering some of the sensitive scenes in the film, Arnold said she talked about them with Jarvis before hand. “She didn’t know the story, but she knew some of the things in it.”

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In 2013, Arnold was named the inaugural Filmmaker in Residence for the New York Film Festival. Arnold said it was perfect timing for her as she was working on her first script to be set in America and this residency allowed her to spend more time in the country. That script was American Honey, a coming of age drama about a teenager who runs away from home and starts selling magazine subscriptions but soon gets caught up in hard partying, young love, and law bending. Shia LaBeouf has been cast and the film was released this past month. Arnold also spent her residency going to various schools in the New York area to talk to kids about filmmaking, acting, and directing.

She is often a jury member on various international film festivals and is a staff member for Ghetto Film School.

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