There are few populations that are as poorly represented by Hollywood as the working class. When they are depicted in mainstream films, it is in the service of cliched, inspirational sports movies (e.g., The Blind Side) or in overwrought, arguably racist melodramas (e.g., Precious). If American, the characters are almost inevitably people of color, not because poor Americans are not overwhelmingly non-white -- they are -- but because this is the narrative that predominately white audiences want to be fed to them over and over. When you're on top, it's comforting to be reminded of that through popular culture. Perhaps the only recently successful film about a poor, white person is Winter's Bone. Scratch that: the only good one.
This is why you need look no further than the kitchen sink drama codified by Brits like Mike Leigh and, more recently, Andrea Arnold and the director of this extraordinary film, Clio Barnard. Her debut feature film, The Arbor, does provide an honest and deeply unsentimental look at a dysfunctional family in working-class Yorkshire. She takes an unorthodox, two-pronged approach: the film is about a real family that lends their actual voices to lip-synching actors, who talk to the camera as if they themselves were the interviewees. The main subject of the film is Andrea Dunbar, a playwright who became successful at a very young age and died only a dozen years afterward, having mothered several children by different fathers. These children tell their and their mother's story, which is interwoven with reenactments of a particular play by Dunbar, also called The Arbor.
The oldest of Dunbar's children is Lorraine, whose mostly absent father was Pakistani, something that provided a source of endless ridicule and shame for her throughout her life. Like her mother, Lorraine became a drug addict and suffered through several major issues with children of her own. Her story provides the most immediate conduit through which Barnard investigates into Dunbar's own life. The parallels between the lives of both Andrea and Lorraine are tragic and miserable, yet Barnard provides some desperately needed distance between us and these events through her storytelling.
It's initially quite easy to accuse this film of obfuscating the truth by inserting actors in the middle of us and the actual people, but we are quickly given over to the illusion that they actually are these people. It's a gamble that provides dividends throughout the film, the pain of which is so strong as to be nearly unbearable at times. The actors all elicit sympathy, despite the fact that the real people whose voices are speaking tell us of some truly terrible and despicable deeds. The real lives of these people are so nightmarish that they almost feel fictional.
Barnard's strange yet enormously effective film is not the sort that bears emulation; I can't see her methods working with any other subject, nor by any other director. The Arbor is one of those unique films that, once you see it, you urge everyone else to experience it. You only hope that some other, lesser director doesn't try to capitalize on its power.