Teenage angst has long been a rich subject for cinema - but some takes still stand out as more unique than others. Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Sairaa Bairns on two very different, but equally strange and truthful, British takes on the matter of troubled adolescence.
When Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher said, “What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?”, people would’ve probably laughed in disbelief. But when you really reflect and mull over this, laughter is in itself a coping mechanism. In other words, laughter is like a misunderstanding between the brain cells – particularly when it acts as a substitute for pain. This is probably why many of us enjoy dark humour and artforms that disguise the real pain within a larger context of smaller unlimited possibilities. Usually, films with happy endings are not always as evocative and profound as those with potentially open-ended yet imperfect endings. This allows us as viewers to think of several what-if scenarios and perspectives long after we’ve watched the film. In that case, the film spills outside its constraints and lingers in our subconscious to resurface much later. For me, films or music videos that visually stimulate strong emotions of anger, pain and sadness stay longer than those that are wholly happy in their content.
Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank and the Netflix series The End of the Fucking World (TEOTFW) creatively acknowledge the role of trauma and pain in defining young characters. While some are fortified by trauma, others are debilitated by it. In TEOTFW, Bonnie (Naomi Ackie) is so moulded by the rules of punishment and obedience as a child, that she refuses to look at the spaces between the two. For her, things are black and white as she tries to take revenge based wholly on an assumption she herself has made. As the series protagonist Alyssa (Jessica Barden) says, we do “lie to ourselves all the time” to make things fit into our perceptions. In that sense, we purposely create misunderstandings because they are mostly easier to digest than the truth.
In Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis) displaces her love onto Conor (Michael Fassbender), the new boyfriend of her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), possibly due to the lack of love or presence of a father figure in her life. This attachment gives her a strong sense of freedom as she realises that she is not constrained in her choice of love. This minor act of freedom transforms Mia, allowing her to partially rewrite her own narrative and possibly redefine her past and present. The title of the film emphasises Mia’s constricted circumstances, having grown up in a British public housing estate with a young single mother who simply doesn’t understand her. Mia is held inside this claustrophobic tank where she is struggling to swim with fleeting moments of happiness. The movie ends on an unhappy note as things remain the same as they were in the beginning. There is no prospect for improvement and all that Mia eventually has is her passion and experience. Like Bonnie, Mia tries to reinvent her history and possibly run away from it, only to find that she is tangled in an inescapable web. Both their characters compellingly explain why many people literally fuel their entire being onto another person or particular belief, only to realise that it was all a lie.
The bleakness of Fish Tank, with its greyish tints and verite camerawork, has a surprising amount in common with the dark absurdism of The End of the Fucking World – they both adroitly portray young people navigating distraught home environments. As Alyssa, James (Alex Lawther), Bonnie and Mia navigate through life they try to outgrow their childhood constraints and hometowns. In Fish Tank, Mia’s character is surrounded by all sorts of commotion from blaring television advertisements to urban racket outside, which constantly interrupts her thoughts. This heightened noise contrasts with the TEOTFW’s intense and uncomfortable silences. While music or blaring sounds carry the emotion forward, so too does silence. As James states, “silence is really loud” to an extent that it can become almost deafening. Throughout the series, subjects or ideas that are believed to be solemn or serious are talked about in a nonchalant manner. This allows the audience as viewers to engage with characters who don’t view their tragedies in the same way as many of us. Despite the humorous aspects of TEOTFW, the series does not dismiss the vulnerability that characters feel. This is hard to achieve given how humour can sometimes make the sentiments of the characters a lighthearted spectacle. James and Alyssa share their personal thoughts and emotions mostly through voiceovers. Rather than having these conversations with each other’s characters onscreen, the conversation is targeted at the audience. Hence, the interiority of these characters is felt only by the audience as their emotions intensify. At the same time, the camera lingers on them individually for longer allowing the viewer to fully empathize with and understand the truckload of emotions being felt by them.
Both Fish Tank and The End of the Fucking World are inspiring coming of age narratives that constantly emphasize the need to outgrow people and places. It’ll always be easy to be stuck in the past or even be constrained by our limitations, but despite the pain and trauma there’s a lot left to embrace. The passion with which James, Alyssa, Mia and Bonnie explain their personal histories and pain will always continue to move the viewer in some way. The emotions it generates will last and remain significant. Ultimately, pain does change people more than happy endings can.