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Andrea Arnold’s Bird Brings a Touch of Magic Realism to the Anxiety of Adolescence

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We often talk casually about childhood, girlhood, young adulthood, as if they were monolithic experiences; it’s only when they are reflected back at us, especially in the movies, that we see how many different shades of childhood there are, as distinctive as the individuals soldiering through them. In Andrea Arnold’s tender, bracing Bird—playing in comPetition at the Cannes Film Festival—12-year old Bailey (Nikiya Adams) lives with her father Bug (Barry Keoghan, of The Banshees of Inisherin and Saltburn) and older brother Hunter (Jason Buda) in a squat in Kent, the kind of down-at-the-heels house that should be depressing but somehow isn’t.

The walls of Bailey’s bedroom are painted with vines and leaves; butterflies occasionally enter through the open window for a visit. When she’s not outside looking at the world around her, exploring a grassy field where a horse might come over for a nuzzle, or communicating with a gull who’s giving her serious side-eye, she’s sprawled on her bed, projecting images and videos onto the wall from her cellphone. Those include any random animal or personal encounter she might have had in the past 24 hours or so, recorded either for posterity or for fun; these projected pictures are her visual diary, a way for her to memorize the texture of the day.

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But Bailey isn’t particularly happy at the moment: Bug, a wiry, tattooed scrapper who doesn’t seem to care much for working (he’s just bought a Colorado River toad, hoping to extract and sell its psychedelic slime), has just informed her that he’s marrying his girlfriend, Kayleigh (Frankie Box), in a matter of days. Bailey doesn’t much like Kayleigh, and she really doesn’t like the shiny purple animal print jumpsuit Kayleigh has chosen for her as bridesmaid-wear. Bailey is more of a tomboy, favoring sneakers, shorts, practical zip-up jackets. She pushes back at her father, while Kayleigh is right there in the room. They fight; she storms off, spending the night out. The next morning she wakes up in a field—a strange, strong breeze momentarily ripples through it, nearly knocking her over—and when she looks up, she sees a spindly, windblown figure walking toward her, a young man in a sweater and a skirt that swirls majestically around his knees. His name is Bird—he’s played by the wonderful German actor Franz Rogowski—and he wants to know where he is; he’s looking for a specific house, though really, it turns out he’s looking for a lost self.

Bailey is at first wary of Bird, but for reasons she probably couldn’t articulate, she decides to help him. And when Bailey learns that the three young siblings she adores are in danger—they live with Bailey’s mother, who’s taken up with a really bad boyfriend—Bird steps up to help her, too, in a twist that brings a zephyr of magic realism into Bailey’s world.

Arnold’s last film was the fine but bittersweet documentary Cow (2021), a portrait of two cows living—and working—on a dairy farm, and a reflection on how Animals’ lives are entwined with those of humans. But she’s so good at slipping into the world of adolescents that it’s a pleasure to see her returning to it. Arnold never stoops to telling us things about her characters; she simply shows us, minute by minute, the fine-grained patterns of their lives. When Bailey gets her period for the first time, waking up in bed to see a bloody splotch on her underwear, it’s Kayleigh she goes to for help. And though the two don’t get along, Kayleigh instinctively hands her what she needs—a tampon, double-checking to see that she knows how to use it, and some painkillers for her cramps—and you see the beginning of a bond being forged. Bug loves his kids, but he was a kid himself when he had them, and it seems he’s spent every year since kicking back at the mere idea of responsibility. But even though he’s more pal than authority figure to Bailey and Hunter, there’s something inside him that instinctively bends toward ensuring their welfare, the best way he can. This is what Arnold is so great at capturing: people just doing their best, which often means they surpass every expectation without even knowing it. Her generosity toward her characters is also generosity toward us. She hands us nothing, even as she gives us everything.

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