I watched Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank the other night. It was a pretty excellent film, even if the plot twist was predictable. Essentially, a very confused, messed-up, and angry 15 year old causes problems and gets into fights, yet shows great tenderness in other cases. She also loves to dance, as evidently do many of the young women in her neighborhood who watch a lot of videos. Her alcoholic single mom gets a new boyfriend who seems like a perfectly nice working-class guy and gentlemen. Of course he’s not and mayhem ensues. You can read the Times review here.
It’s a good movie and you should see it. But I write about it because it reinforced something I see again and again: the commonality of the British working-class film and the complete disappearance of the working-class from American film. In Britain, portrayals of working-class life are entirely common. These don’t have to be political either. The height of the form might be Ken Loach’s outstanding Sweet Sixteen. Loach makes overtly political films too but these are highly inconsistent and usually less satisfying than his portrayals of just everyday working-class life. They don’t have to be social realism either–Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels may not be a realistic portrayal of working-class life but working-class people are absolutely central to the story.
Contrast this to the United States. I don’t have many expectations from the big studios that at this point make superhero movies, a few comedies, and official Oscar contending films that 10 years ago seemed to all be about the Holocaust and today seem to be all about old British royalty.
But what about independent film? We supposedly have this vibrant indie film scene in the U.S. One can certainly question its quality (and I very much do) but there are a lot of films being made. And yet the working-class is almost entirely absent. Simple stories of working-class people barely exist. There are probably a lot of reasons for this. Britain of course has a much more honed sense of class consciousness than Americans. And most of these indie filmmakers here probably don’t come from working-class backgrounds themselves and naturally enough tell stories that have meaning to them.
Nonetheless, the disappearance of stories about working-class people from American film is sad and the plethora of good movies covering these topics shows how much American filmgoers are missing out on.