Written by Jeff Sparks
Filmed in her hometown of Dartford, Wasp is the third short film by Andrea Arnold and her final short before her first feature-length film, Red Road. In Wasp, Arnold captures an early performance from Natalie Press as she portrays the complexities of motherhood that for some parents can turn into regret. Press plays Zoe, a young single mother living in a cramped apartment with her four adolescent offspring. Immediately we are exposed to her style of parenting as she marches across the neighborhood with her kids in tow to a woman’s apartment where a spat on her doorstep quickly turns into a tussle on the front lawn. Residents spectate from the sidewalks, unbothered to break up the fight. This isn’t the first time they have seen something like this here.
As the unqualified mother lugs her diaperless baby and the rest of her children back down the street she notices a man from her past. When the man, Dave, asks her out, Zoe becomes genuinely excited as this is her first date in a long time due to her responsibility to take care of her kids occupying all of her time. In her apartment we see a wasp crashing against a window, trying to get out. Instead of killing it, Zoe opens the window, allowing it to fly free, as she sees herself in the wasp. Both are stuck in an apartment, desperate to get out as they are relegated to only being able to look out and observe. Zoe leaves the window hanging open, hoping she will be the next to escape and fly free.
Shortly thereafter Zoe, unable to find a babysitter, leads her children down to the pub where Dave awaits her. She cannot take them inside, nor can she let her date know that she is a mother. This is the risk-reward she is willing to take. When her date asks her to buy him a beer she spends her only money on a small bag of chips for her kids to share and a beer for him, wanting to impress him. In the next scene, we are shown the two sides of Zoe. First, she hits a shot in a game of pool, implying she has done this many times in her past. After, she checks up on her kids and cheers them up, seeing they are beginning to feel bored. In this scene, Arnold shows us that Zoe has a deep longing for her days as a woman free of responsibility while simultaneously having a true adoration for her children. This is a perfect example of the way Arnold portrays her characters in a multilayered way.
One thing Arnold wants us to come away with is that Zoe is not a bad parent on purpose, she is unprepared, conflicted about her place in the world, and lost in the process. A woman at the bar makes a comment implying that this is not the first time Zoe has left her children unwatched. Following this we see Zoe talking to the kids almost in a way she would talk to employees if she were a manager. She clearly does not know what she is doing, but at the very least she is making an attempt. Later in the night, the kids are relegated to eating wings dropped on the ground due to their mother not bothering to feed them more than a bag of chips. The sauce attracts a wasp that flies into the infant’s mouth in an excruciatingly hard-to-watch scene. Relieved that the wasp does not do any damage, Zoe checks on the children who call her out on being the root cause of the ordeal. Here Zoe is beginning to realize that her being free of her parenting responsibilities like the wasp escaping from the window will lead to her causing hardships on her children like the wasp on the baby. Arnold ends the film open-ended. Zoe is the only one who can shape the future of the story of herself and her children.
You can watch Wasp via YouTube above or on the Criterion Channel.
You can follow Jeff Sparks on Instagram and Letterboxd.