The Arbor: Art Imitates Life, and So Does Life 

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The Arbor
Directed by Clio Barnard

It's not just art that imitates life in The Arbor. This portrait of the playwright Andrea Dunbar—who was raised in Yorkshire council housing, had autobiographical skuzzy kitchen-sink dramas produced in London while still in her teens, and dropped dead of a brain hemorrhage at a drink-ravaged 29, leaving three young children by three fathers—is also a bruising multi-generational saga of echoic poverty and addiction.

For her feature debut, installation filmmaker Clio Barnard first talked extensively with Dunbar's family, neighbors and collaborators, then had actors lip-synch the interviews in hi-def restagings gradually indicative of the subjects' present circumstances. These interviews are crosshatched with BBC news clips in beautiful-bleary Trinitron grain—Dunbar's face reddening, bloating and scarring over the course of the 80s—and readings from her first play, The Arbor, staged in the round on her home estate's common lawn, where tracksuited residents watch scenes from their recent past play out on threadbare, discarded-looking couches. Natalie Gavin, a local product with an I-know-something-you-don't-know smirk, is "The Girl,"who endures drunk dad, ragged mum, violent siblings, slaggy friends, and pregnancy with an illiterate Pakistani immigrant.

Andrea's other double, perhaps, is her eldest, half-Pakistani daughter Lorraine, an infant when Arbor was first performed. Lorraine, subject to racial taunts and resentment, takes over the film just as hard drugs overtake alcohol as the underclass's preferred agent of self-sabotage. Her dual roles as victim of abuse and perpetrator of negligence are recollected with the same unfathomable objectivity, while her half-sister and -brother (both with young families), profess an almost defensive forgiveness for Andrea's bad mothering.

The lip-synching allows Barnard to frame and cut for maximum negative space, which she fills with profound implications courtesy ambient drone and Lorraine stand-in Manjinder Virk's wounded-innocent eyes. But more than a shrewd way of distributing emphasis, the technique suggests something about Andrea Dunbar's own artistry in structuring hand-to-mouth discord into social-realist drama.

Opens April 27

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