This year’s Cannes competition began with a film set in a working-class environment where a young woman with a single mother dreamed of escaping it all through dance. It was Agathe Riedinger’s Wild Diamond, but squint the eyes and forget the sunny coastal scenery and you could have been watching Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, a winner of the jury prize here fifteen years ago. Arnold now returns to the Croisette with Bird, remarkably just her third narrative film since and her closest to it, in many ways––up-and-coming stars next to non-professional actors, kitchen-sink realism, great music, sketchy dudes––although this time with Franz Rogowski playing a queer-coded Mary Poppins who might be a seagull.

Bird stars Nykiya Adams as Bailey, a young girl living with her father, Bug (a tattooed Barry Keoghan in a touching performance), in a free-spirited community house in a British coastal town. Bailey’s sisters live with their mother, Peyton (Jasmine Jobson), and her abusive partner in another part of town. At the beginning, Bug, who also has a son named Hunter (Jason Buda) with another woman, announces that he’s engaged to his new girlfriend, Kayleigh (Frankie Box). Rogowski’s character, who goes by Bird, appears some way after the first act––Arnold introducing him with a gust of wind to suggest the supernatural. At other times, Bailey––who has taken to cutting her hair short and applying eyeliner as small acts of revolt against Bug’s engagement––finds him perched above one of the buildings in her estate, a bit like Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire.

At first you think she might be imagining him––though ostensibly playing a local, Rogowski’s accent and attire feel from another universe––but they soon get involved in each other’s messy lives. The director has gestured toward magical realism in her work before (think of the white horse in Fish Tank or the elemental yearning of her Wuthering Heights) but this first foray into anthropomorphism feels strangely surface-level and does more to break the film’s spell than enhance it.

Shot by Robbie Ryan and featuring the first Irish character Keoghan has played in a while––as well as a soundtrack peppered with the Dublin-based music of Fontaines D.C. and Gemma Dunleavy, and with some passing references to what appears to be a local Irish traveler community––there is a vivid Hibernian energy to Bird that, on a personal level, made me doubly disappointed. Arnold has been magnificent with young actors in the past: there was a distinct feeling in American Honey (for my money, one of the best films of the last decade) that the director was conspiring with the film’s rag-tag gang of teenagers––if not their peer, then certainly an honorary ringleader. Nine years on, it’s hard to see a similar connection in Bird: Adams and Buda liven up dialogue with their own slang and colloquialisms, but certain deliveries land conspicuously flat––that touch of Arnold magic only notable for its absence.

Outside of that, Arnold could have been a bit clearer about what she wanted the film to say. Jaded by the local police force’s inaction, Hunter and a group of friends start dishing out vigilante justice to abusive men in the community and posting videos of it online. Arnold chooses neither to judge or commend the boys’ campaign, leaving it to sit a little awkwardly alongside Bird‘s otherwise hopeful takes on love, forgiveness, and friendship.

It is still worth seeing, however––not least for Robbie Ryan, whose cinematography has always been at its most curious and playful in Arnold’s films, ever alive to the small details and the play of natural light. (The Lanthimos regular works wonders with a recurring motif in which Bailey projects the videos she captures onto her bedroom wall.) And credit to Keoghan, who seems to channel his own recent journey into fatherhood into the role, building a character who initially threatens to be one of Arnold’s signature bad men into the film’s heart and soul. There is a suggestion that Bug makes his money selling drugs, but this dubious life choice is shown through an endearing lens as he attempts to get a Colorado River toad and excrete its hallucinogenic slime. This involves him and his pals getting drunk and serenading it with renditions of Blur and Coldplay. “Yellow” will never sound the same again.

Bird premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: C+

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