Bird: Andrea Arnold’s tender contemporary fable

Newcomer Nykiya Adams triumphs in this otherworldly kitchen sink story of a young girl who forms a bond with a peculiar stranger.

Nykiya Adams as Bailey in Bird (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

In her masterful short, Wasp (2003), British director Andrea Arnold told the story of Zöe, a single mum who doggedly keeps a romantic date going as her small children prowl, scavenge, and wait, in a pub car park. Some 20 years after Wasp earned Arnold an Oscar, she remains devoted to portraying characters saddled with hard-scrabble lives whose desire for love and genuine connection outstrips their dejectedness. 

Bailey (Nykiya Adams), the 12-year-old heroine of Arnold’s new fiction feature, Bird, could very well be a budding version of Zöe. She lives in a dilapidated house with her hapless dad, Bug (Barry Keoghan), and older brother, Hunter (Jason Buda), with a private space that consists of a sleeping bag separated from Hunter’s room by a gauzy curtain, and she’s starting to realise life isn’t turning out so great. It’s not clear how Bug makes his money, though his latest scheme – a frog that he coaxes to produce pricey hallucinogenic slime by playing it Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ and other “earnest music” he normally hates – encapsulates his shaky prospects. Meanwhile Bailey’s mom, separated from Bug, isn’t better off, caring for three small children.  

If Bailey’s family is big and loving, it’s also a source of constant worry. Trouble brews as early as the film’s opening, when Bug announces he’s soon to marry, and the bride and her little girl are moving in. Bailey’s stubborn refusal to be a bridesmaid, provoking Bug’s anger, is clearly only the tip of the iceberg of dire tensions between a rebellious daughter and the father whose actions seem to her selfishly haphazard. Meanwhile, drugs are casually taken in both parents’ homes, Hunter styles himself as a neighbourhood vigilante, and mum’s dating a new, violent boyfriend, who increasingly petrifies Bailey’s young and defenceless siblings.   

In turmoil, Bailey bolts and runs away, a whirlwind of impulses. Only when in nature does she slow down. Her iPhone’s camera becomes her greatest ally. Though sometimes it documents aggression and violence – such as when Hunter brutally attacks an enemy, or when mum’s boyfriend threatens Bailey and her sister – it also captures fleeting, bewitching moments, like a horse grazing in a meadow, a butterfly landing on Bailey’s finger, or seagulls taking flight. In the scenes of Bailey projecting her videos on the walls of her room, or when her little movies run through her mind, in a constant relay of past and present, Arnold incapsulates the magic of cinema as a sensory tool for discovering and staying connected to the material world, and dreams. 

One such dream literally blows into Bailey’s life, propelled by a strong wind, it seems: after running from home, she wakes up in a field, to meet a peculiar young man, Bird (Franz Rogowski). Bird is looking for his family, and though wary, at first, Bailey decides to help him, finding his mysterious ways – spending days and nights perched atop the roof of an apartment block – slowly growing on her. Their bond ripens into a friendship that’s rooted in a sense of otherworldliness, in sensing that there’s another, gentler, way to live.  

In Robbie Ryan’s tactile cinematography, the camera stays glued to bodies, with partially obstructed frames, so that viewers are plunged into uncertainty and disorientation along with the characters. At times, the shaky visuals, and Joe Bini’s fluid cutting, also convey Bailey’s perceptual blur, and giddy thrill – as seen during Bailey’s carefree ride with Bug on his scooter – when the city’s arteries, flushed with life, open up to her.   

Newcomer Nykiya Adams triumphs as Bailey, commingling edginess, tenderness, and introspection; so do Barry Keoghan, whose Bug is as big-hearted and droll as he is hapless, and Rogowski, who delivers Bird’s stoic poise with a wispy softness. Rogowski’s also convincingly birdlike. By the time his character literally spreads his wings – as a half-man half-beast, an incarnation of a kindred spirit, or a messenger from another world – it’s not too off-putting. His figure rather comes off as manifesting Bailey’s belief in her innate power, and perhaps also her last bid at the safety of childhood, with its array of protective fantastical beings. In some respects, Bird fits in line with gritty contemporary fables such as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Regardless of what viewers make of Bird’s duality, as both a man heartbroken over his family and an animal endowed with supernatural powers, Arnold grapples with the very real dilemma of how to keep one’s senses, and spirit, alive, against uncertainty and pain.