Matilda (1996), dir. Danny DeVito

Alongside other adaptations of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction, Matilda is a film I remember strongly: each scene is a game in recalling with glee the moment that follows it. I can’t eat a bowl of Cheerios without remembering a scene that plays as obvious product placement displaying Matilda’s powers – a commercial inserted into a film. It’s a film of images that endure, whether it’s the sales speak of Matilda’s father Harry, the plastic wagon in which she drags her books along the sidewalk, or the assembly hall spectacle of the confection of the towering chocolate cake as a public act of revenge against the young Bruce Bogtrotter. It doesn’t matter whether Bruce ate the cake in the first place, or whether Trunchbull ate it and forgot about doing so. Accepting her word is the only way to survive; many teachers would pass the blame in the same way.

My introduction to the experimental, defining filmmaking of Nicolas Roeg had been through The Witches (1990); my introduction to the aesthetic whimsy of Wes Anderson was Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The BFG (1989) was likely the first DVD I ever owned, bundled together on 2 compressed DVDs with dual sides – alongside The Transformers: The Movie (1986), Black Beauty (1994) and Help I’m a Fish (2001). I read almost every Dahl work for children growing up, delighted at every paperback or copies that materialised in the school library. I watched every film, whether on DVD, VHS or as television broadcasts, including the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). In English class, we were given photocopies of extended extracts from his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984), to read over and analyse. Then there were Puffin’s different editions, adopting different house styles for the cover templates and ways of using Quentin Blake’s illustrations: faded copies from the 70s, 90s reprints, the 2001 editions with Dahl’s name in vertical type I read fondly, or the newer – and worse? – copies that followed in the years since I had stopped reading Dahl. With the release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Dahl’s name was given new prominence, with tie-in books, documentaries about his life and career, and a limited run of Nestlé Wonka bars attached with the chance of a Golden Ticket. I became fascinated by the differences between book and film.

Returning to the film in adulthood, it seems all the more devastating – and visible as more of a product. It’s a product of adapting a beloved British author for American family audiences, the same year as Disney’s similarly complex and dark film about recovery from an abusive family, James and the Giant Peach. It’s a film from the joint venture of TriStar Pictures that defined Sony’s 90s output, another film for parent technology company Sony to insert branded devices into the hands of FBI agents long before the Sony Xperia. Matilda is another case of actor-turned-director (and producer) – playing her father Harry and voicing as the film’s narrator – catapulted by Danny DeVito’s success in the wake of Batman Returns (1992) and Get Shorty (1995). DeVito’s narration is perhaps one of the weak points – an audio commentary provided by the director from a third person point of view removed from his character, adopting the role of Dahl – a storybook of the novella applied to endear and bridge and explain obvious narrative elements. 

The commercial decision to transplant an English narrative into an American setting and audience fits the instincts of previous and forthcoming Dahl adaptations, including his work for older readers, besides a few solely British productions – the television Danny the Champion of the World and Cosgrove Hall’s The BFG (1989), and ITV’s decade long run of Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88). In Matilda, the results come across as somewhat mixed, casting Welsh-German actress Pam Ferris for Miss Agatha Trunchbull, but Crunchem Hall juxtaposes yellow school buses and the U.S. flag with imposing grey, leering, decrepit school grounds that seems to have migrated into the country alongside Catholic immigrants. One can’t dismiss an American aesthetic either: the British settings and filming in Munich for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and in Pinewood for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both relied on the star value of American actors, Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp; Fantastic Mr. Fox uses a British farm, supermarket and even television reporters, but American sports, his style and cast of Clooney and Streep never feels out of place.

It’s inspiring that Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson’s current status as an activist, a bisexual icon, a fighter of fascism, her cousinhood with Ben Shapiro – seems supported by the text of the film. Did her few months in childhood working on Matilda help shape who she is today? Matilda must resist an authoritarian and corporal private school system, and advocates for the right to read in the face of destructive family she doesn’t get along with. The supportive friendship between Lavender (Kiami Davael) and Matilda is framed in shots between the two – and lit in a particular way – that it feels it could blossom into something else in later years. It’s a film with visible queer coding. Matilda place its source of child abuse in headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, a butch woman who laughs at the concept of heterosexual married relationships, and maintains her physical prowess even two decades after competing in the 1972 Olympics, with no partner but anger. James and the Giant Peach had its evil aunts that could equally be read as close-knit sisters or a lesbian couple. Matilda places femininity and the parental relationship with sensitive and encouraging teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) as an escape from abuse.

Some aspects work less well: why would the FBI have such an interest in Harry Wormwood’s misleading and corrupt car dealership to the point of surveilling the family in a disguised van, collecting notes eating fast food, making contact and engaging detailed questions in the living room with her mum, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), as speedboat salesmen, something Matilda can see through straight away – in a corporate America that regularly approves of unethical and illegal business that doesn’t benefit the consumer? As a self-made American man outside of an educational background that is regularly valorised and celebrated? With an FBI that concentrates its efforts on the actions of the American government and fighting against African American and leftwing activism with fatal consequences? Does the family really need to relocate to Guam, abandoning Matilda in the process?

Though it seems at times too intense and tonally inconsistent for children, Matilda is best read as a satire and an exploration of the harmful effects of parents and adults that neglect and abuse their children – an ‘all ages’ version of Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). For an abused child, the film could be a lifeline for understanding their abuse and knowing there’s a way out of it. DeVito finds the core of his story in examining 1990s American identity. The Wormwood family is a victim of broadcasting practices that neglect informative and complex programming and literary adaptations in favour of diversions, the ludicrous capitalistic gameshow of Million Dollar Sticky. The ‘couch potato’ is an archetype that dominated media critiques in the 80s, 90s and 00s that seems to have receded as television viewing patterns shift, but it’s an image that carries a lot of power – conformity to the broadcast schedule is fundamental to the family’s interaction as a unit. Matilda’s desire to quietly read a book in the corner is not okay. There’s an irony to this: the Wormwoods don’t want to be bookworms, or surveying the pages that, in another lifetime, could have been built as wood. As parents, they refute the power of school and Matilda is failed and isolated by both her parents and the local authority unable to recognise she isn’t being taken to school. It’s easy to wonder whether Matilda’s older brother Michael (Brian Levinson) picked up words like ‘dick’ and his aggressive behaviour from his family and the TV. 

The way Trunchbull is able to maintain her power through subordinates isn’t surprising – kids and schools will put up with whatever shit gets things run. Physical, psychological and sexual abuse becomes normalised, and many schools are able to get away with it without oversight. How can you resist through nepotism between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey? The children that are thrown through windows and end up rescued by the manifestation of Matilda’s telekinetic powers, or fly through fields of flowers are corpses, quickly brushed over as just a ‘tragic accident’. The world of Matilda may seem heightened: impaled children bleed from sharp metal protrusions of being kept in solitary confinement. The tragedy in the film can be difficult to square with the family friendly jukebox soundtrack. The victims of Trunchbull’s tyranny include a victim of suicide, Miss Honey’s father Magnus, that Matilda reincarnates as a ghost – an unexplained death that still has questions all these years later. The tragedy that affected one childhood affects another generation, but DeVito utilises it as a plot device to explain why things are the way things are and scare Trunchbull away from the school. 

Matilda’s character plays as a pre-pubescent, supernatural Stephen King girl – a younger version of Carrie (1976) before the onset of menstruation and high school, or the kid from Firestarter (1984). It’s this element that displays the film’s most magical element, moving water and blackboards merely through the power of her mind. Matilda has become a figure for libraries and World Book Day to promote the power of reading alongside Quentin Blake’s memorable illustrations. She’s an easy candidate for neurodivergence, not through her magical powers but her dedication to one thing without really thinking about it, calculating a mathematical sum meant as a throwaway joke and her father’s accounting he pushes onto his children, or seeing past the veil of boat ‘salesmen’. She’s presented as a girl with a high IQ who can easily get into college in only a few years. But I’m thinking of Devon Price’s Medium article Autistic Superpowers. Matilda’s neurodivergent quirks that she doesn’t think about goes together with her literal superpowers.

Perhaps I see myself most in the hordes of books she drags home from the library, piling up around her bedroom. It doesn’t matter if she actually reads the books, or intends to read them soon, or place them in piles, or properly process their meaning and the words on their pages. I remember at the start of middle school where we were asked to fill out postcards with a sketch of our hobbies. I drew myself sat down reading a book in my bedroom, surrounded by a full bookcase of Roald Dahl books and Horrible Histories. It seems an image out of Matilda itself. In adulthood, it seems harder to consume so many books so easily, but it seems an autistic quirk that everything else goes out of the window – plans, priorities, adult responsibilities – because reading and finishing a book is the most important thing – to go onto the next chapter, however long it is. I become hyperfocused; this is the only thing. So it’s wonderful when she gets to have her talents and insights actually nurtured by a responsible adult. The dismissive nature of Matilda’s biological parents becomes confirmed when they so easily sign away the adoption papers Matilda wrote and researched herself, without a tear or a second thought. Matilda is the film for the kids who struggled to survive school.

Jellyfish (2018), dir. James Gardner

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TW: contains discussion of the sexual abuse of a minor and my own personal experience. (this is more of a trigger warning than the film itself provides.)

Jellyfish has three rape scenes, an attempted rape scene and a scene discussing rape. The film doesn’t explicitly delineate all of these as rape scenes, but make no mistake: a 15 year old – a minor – cannot consent to sex, or exchange money with an adult as a contract – by definition, it is statutory rape.

The BBFC’s own classification and Insight struggles to put the film into words.

very strong language, strong sex references, scene of sexual violence

The 15 rating seems ludicrous: is the explicit subject matter enough for a minor to fully process, especially if they are a victim themselves? The film’s promotional blurb emphasised the angle of being an up-and-coming young comedian over the more serious themes. Before the changes of the new millennium, where enforced guidelines were instituted, even films for adults such as Straw Dogs (1971) that dealt with rape trauma were restricted for fear of sexual exploitation and encouraging rape – affecting not only theatrical exhibition but especially video. But what about the impact on survivors of rape? Responses to trauma will never be identical, but unique to each person and scenario.

I don’t want to be critical of everyone involved in putting an indie film together. In The Fight, Liv Hill plays another school aged character – a bully, Jordan, inheriting the fears and dislikes of her mother (also a bully) – that affects the generations of both the present and past and providing the film with its emotional core. Many of the performances are solid, but are weakened by the film’s problematic screenplay and intentions. Wanting to support the UK film industry in an era of Hollywood domination can open one up in negative ways: seeing films that aren’t discussed enough to be able to make an informed decision, and seeing films that aren’t formed as wholly as they could be. Jellyfish isn’t the first gritty indie British drama about a teenage girl directed by a man, and it won’t be the last. Female directors can provide an additional degree of complexity and greater sensitivity, with their (statistically more likely) own experiences as the target of childhood sexualisation and abuse able to influence the film’s content: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) brings with it a complex personality and identity, having healthy, adolescent sexual desires, self-reflection and understanding, and providing hope by being able to escape a toxic situation – all viewed through a female lens.

Before the film, knowing of a singular rape scene, I debated whether I wanted to be subjected to it, reading over the film’s website and messaging a friend. But I figured, I was already at the cinema, and broadening my cinematic outlook – and supporting independent cinema that places women in central roles – should be a positive. It’s better to take the risk. Instead, the film brought with it a re-traumatising constant state of anxiety and dissociation: I was empty, unable to think to get the bus home. I was back in high school, scenes playing through my mind that should no longer be there; it’s a regression to return. I thought I’d be over it by now. During the film’s central rape scene, Sarah’s employer at the arcade she works at allows her to keep her job if she gives him something in return; the camera holds upon the scene – a continuation of the abuse she experiences at her place of work, a way to keep her quiet from this information being imparted to the police, the workplace where adults take advantage of her by paying her for blowjobs (statutory rape) by the bins. I left for the bathroom, angered at both myself for thinking the film would be okay and that I could handle it, and at the film for depicting it in the first place – but I left my bag in the screen to come to, as though I needed a reason to return. Maybe it will get better. The audience wasn’t anyone I could talk to, but an older one, perhaps more distant from their younger days.

Thinking back now, I’d have left and asked for a refund – what’s the point in finishing a film for the sake of logging it? But it’s hard to apply those critical thinking skills when you’re traumatised.

Rewatching Mysterious Skin (2004) last year, I had the benefit of watching it on DVD: the theatrical experience runs on the benefit of a social contract that risks being offended and breached at any time, without the ability to pause if things are getting too rough. My anxiety crept up and I was within my own thoughts, but I was in control; I wasn’t helpless. Here’s how I responded then:

Brian’s response to abuse – being read as asexual – is exactly how I responded to abuse (and I’m not saying asexuals need to be broken because of course they don’t) – and it took me a long while until I could embrace what consensual sex means without being so repulsed I wanted to throw up. I don’t think I’ve been repulsed for at least the past year

this film IS my life in a sense – reflecting trauma, searching through one’s memory until you reach a revelation, being haunted by the physical (and not just digital) traces of an abuser, having fucked up teenage years that nobody should have to go through

Mysterious Skin works not only as a queer text about childhood sexual abuse, but also as a multi-layered reflexive work that utilises the elements of Araki’s wider filmography – in particular the use of extraterrestrials in LA in Nowhere (1997) – that informs the use of the alien as a means of explaining and escaping trauma within a more serious, down to earth and less campy framework.

The problem is that Jellyfish doesn’t really discuss rape. It highlights the financial necessity for a family living in poverty, but this isn’t a film about rape, lacking a resolution to the emotional arc. One of the film’s unexpected highlights is Sarah’s teacher, Mr. Hale (Cyril Nri) confronting her work ethic and influencing her to commit to and follow her passions. Nri had been extraordinary in his role in Russell T. Davies’ series Cucumber (2015) as Lance – dealing with what it means to be a gay adult and partner in an era of same sex marriage but also continuing homophobia. He comforts her, but we’re not privy to their conversations: not every film should give us a resolution, but leaving things still in process here is the worst thing to do, even as an open conversation. There’s also an implication that the coastal town of Margate that Sarah lives in – compared to somewhere like London – makes this abuse more common, which isn’t particularly helpful.

Everything is muddy: we’re never given any trustworthy male characters who can provide a positive role model, or any female characters with a more nuanced perspective on what being a sex worker is like. It truly feels like Gardner has nothing to say beyond depicting misery: no solutions are presented, only negativity. What should be the film’s main focus – the growth of Sarah’s interest in comedy and becoming interested in being a stand-up – is largely marginalised. There’s an emotional arc about the performance at the Theatre Royal organised by her school, but using comedy as a means of dealing with trauma – on stage, she bursts out the truth of being raped without a complete understanding of what it represents, killing the mood of the comedy but providing the right red flags – and imagining your own responses to scenarios – is played with, yet never fully explored. Sarah is hurting throughout the film, and it’s clear this needs to come out. But the lack of any consequence – besides some meditative nighttime location shots – hurt the film greatly.

Similarly, Sarah having to take too much on as she adapts to the function of motherhood that should be provided for her – between work and school, looking after her siblings and practicing comedy and dealing with the challenges of impoverished austerity Britain (benefits, food banks, disability) – is one of the most attractive points about the film, and during these scenes I truly appreciated the film, before it started to fall apart. Hill’s abrasive attitude can be a little much to handle, but it’s a strong reminder that teenagers are still children, without the emotional capacity to communicate or respond to situations in the same way as adults, even when she puts on a performance much better and more competent than the adults around her. Hill provides a standout young performance where she can channel her rage and anger into comedy.

But this brings me back to one of the film’s main issues: it never decides what it wants to be and focus on. Seeing Sarah’s chronically tired mum with her own mental disability is at times relatable, and it can be easy to truly feel sorry for her, but the film never makes a point of empowering her to live with her disability, or overcome the tired ableist tropes of being lazy or unable to conceptualise what value is that Sarah places upon her. Of course she’s more than that and wants the best life for her kids – but she can’t hold onto the money she has, spending it on useless things, and Gardner never allows us to see her struggling from her own perspective. What could be a serious exploration of her issues instead becomes a joke. Her personality becomes nasty – as though we must immediately dismiss her – without allowing her to explain her absences from her children’s lives, or attempt to resolve her destructive relationship with Sarah. We see her failing her own daughter – implicitly allowing the abuse to continue because ‘sex work’ (the abuse of a minor) to survive is the most important thing. But what experiences has she gone through to have created the circumstances for this deeply problematic position? As mother and daughter, they’re never allowed to form any connection, even if they maintain their distance from each other.

Sarah latches onto Frankie Boyle and his statement in a Glasgow performance that rape jokes can be funny – something she laughs at. This notion – especially to a survivor – is provided some scarce interrogation. Her teacher gives her a list of female comedians – including the golden Victoria Wood – to look up, but we never see her sampling these different comedians (only Boyle) – without ever questioning what it means to be female among a famous lineup of male comedians. Everyone who dismisses her as a comedian – including her own mum – can only ever come up with male comedians as examples – but again this is only just lying above the surface.

I’m so tired of pedophilia being depicted on screen without being presented in complex and sensitive ways, especially from male perspectives: whether it’s L.I.E. (2001) or the abduction and ceremonial rape of a young girl – taken in by and escaping pimps – within a crime drama context in London to Brighton (2006), or the subtextual homoerotic coding of Apt Pupil (1998) – a film directed by a noted pedophile that was met with allegations of of abuse on set to a 13 year old actor (and with enforced shower nudity). Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – a film that was produced, in part, through a porn industry background – depicts Van Peebles’ own son being abused through childhood as he grows up to become a man renowned for his skill in fucking women – and opens with a simulated, three minute long rape scene through the film’s opening credits, revealing his bare ass as a minor penetrates an adult woman. Child actors like Jodie Foster, across films like Taxi Driver (1975) and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), often played empowered young girls preyed upon by disgusting men, able to reclaim their troubled situations. In Pretty Baby (1978), Brooke Shields played a 12 year old girl in 1910s New Orleans failed by the adults complicit in her abuse, bid upon and prostituted by men, with young sexuality paraded as a virginal rite of passage and sexualised as “pretty” in makeup and corsets. Malle was himself scrutinised for his use of nudity of a minor in the film, with minor cuts and optical darkening – and the sense that the film’s themes justified an 18 rating. It’s difficult not to either exploit child actors or exploit the scenes themselves.

Jellyfish almost expects this behaviour of a certain type of leery, creepy, dishevelled, overweight man (Alice Sweet Alice (1976) similarly produces another, villainous, monstrous, ableist, sexually abusive archetype in the role of a neighbour). But we should never accept this as typical behaviour of men. We should actively try and take every step to prevent children becoming victims of abuse, provide real safeguards and teach how abuse occurs.

I’ve read some parallels to Ken Loach but I really don’t see it: Loach and his collaborators are more competent, invested in building relationships with actors, addressing matters sensitively and extensively researching beforehand. The filmmaking and cinematography of Jellyfish are at times strong, but it’s never social realist – the camera shakes, rarely mounted to a tripod, the characters are caricatures – this is about as far from social realism as you can get, but more a parody of social realism.

I’m angry. I’m triggered. And yes, I’m fucking tired.

Destroyer (2018), dir. Karyn Kusama

I’ve been interested in Kusama’s films since I read a piece on Vox a few months ago (VICE did a piece also) discussing the critical reevaluation Jennifer’s Body (2009) has undergone, shifting away from the expectations of male critics and audiences (and box office), towards a more feminist perspective.

Kusama achieves something similar within a different genre: taking tropes of male power fantasy – crime, heist, neo-noir, action drama – and morphing them into Nicole Kidman’s protagonist, Erin. Kidman has always given powerhouse performances, but here she’s a broken, bruised, damaged mom who has endured so much pain – unable to live outside of criminality; but never does she become rugged, masculine, functionally invulnerable. 

In one scene, where a terminally ill man – perhaps someone who has become hurt by coming into her path? – forces Erin to perform masturbation on him (not unlike the coercive, needs driven scene in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)) in order to receive information – becoming more demanding (asking for her to unbutton her shirt, and spit on his penis) – as the scene progresses, ending as she wipes his semen across the bedspread. It’s in scenes like this we understand the paradigm shift this genre has undergone by placing a female director and lead within this story. There’s a different set of expectations both to audiences and the characters within the film’s world.

She’s a mom who wants the best for her 16 year old daughter, Shelby – not to be lured on by older men who don’t see themselves as statutory rapists, and pushes her into a world of violence and danger. A minor who doesn’t realise she’s vulnerable – and also still a minor – just a girl with gaps in her memory. Though the trope of seeing a teenager daughter in peril is well-worn, here it’s different, and delivers a grounded and fundamental core to the film’s narrative and Erin’s character.

She’s a lonely, silent driver – maybe a Travis Bickle, or the Driver, or Baby. The film is so incredibly well executed – shots of Los Angeles highways and murals, creating a snapshot of the location; drifting landscapes as the car moves across the highway; dollar bills smeared in purple; a close attention to detail whenever Erin uses weaponry, or a kid in the store notices the bleeding gunshot upon a woman’s leg. The fading irises upon Erin’s face within the car. Annapurna might have had a number of unfortunate commercial but I’m so glad for every film they fund and put out there.