A little friendly competition

At a recent parents’ evening, 5yo Ramona’s teacher told us how seating our daughter with her best friend tended to improve her work. “There’s a bit of healthy competition going on there, which I admit I sometimes use to get the best out of them.”

Although it shouldn’t, hearing of competition between girls in a positive light does sound strange to me.  I don’t think I’m alone in suspecting that women are raised to think that rivalry is negative – that it’s somehow incompatible with having each other’s backs, owning ‘squad goals’ and knowing where the bodies are hidden.

The thing about surrounding oneself with an army of intelligent, wonderful, interesting human beings is that at some point anyone with all but the most cast iron self-confidence will doubt themselves. I pride myself on having a particularly strong group of pals, each of whom fulfils a part of me that it’s more fun to share: working to make dreams and passions a reality, navigating a particularly sticky work situation, sitting in the cinema holding hands and crying. Each one of those women is astonishingly talented and beautiful – and if I’m totally honest I have a history of being the Fat Friend. Frankly, Peggy Carter might know her value but she had to prove it in a room full of men. Trying to blossom in my own right when I’m surrounded by an entire garden centre feels more challenging – and thinking of it in terms of competition makes me feel about as positive as a Japanese knotweed infestation.

As a result it’s easier to just shy away from it all. No one likes to look too keen; it’s even counterproductive, for how could I compete? Yet I can clearly see that in my daughter’s case, still blissfully free of hang ups and damaging mean girl narratives, a little friendly rivalry is proving good for everyone. When you strive to emulate each other’s strengths, you also pay tribute to them.  Comparison can be the thief of joy, yes, but what could be better than being most inspired by the people you choose to be friends with?

In one of my daughter’s favourite films – the subtle and profound My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks – the essential conflict is caused by introducing the idea of competitiveness. A school musical showcase becomes a “battle of the bands” as some slinky sirens literally feed off disharmony. “What’s so wrong with a little competition?” purrs the leader, and the slanging matches begin. But in the end it is a competition that brings down the bad guys – an epic sing-off, in fact – and in order to do it the girls have to include a friend they’ve been inadvertently keeping at arm’s length despite her best efforts to atone for past cruelties. It’s easy to read it as ‘all competition is bad’, but it seems to me that the message is actually that winning is fine  – provided you don’t get there by trampling on anyone, and you consider everyone’s strengths and not just your own (the good guys also have to acknowledge some self-centered and exclusionary behaviour among themselves).

At some point, my daughter will  learn that other people will overtake her, and that she will have to make a decision whether to try, try again or change direction. It’s not easy to know whether you’re giving up too soon or flogging a dead horse; too much comparison can make A look like B, but too little and you end up as one of those people cruelly made a laughing stock on a TV talent show. At some point she’ll have to get used to the idea that other people will look up to her and – this is the tricky bit – accept this as valid. Suffering from imposter syndrome is not at all unusual among women, and I am certainly a veteran. I love that Ramona is getting the opportunity to stretch herself, and see where she can lead and where she can learn. She’s acquiring graciousness and generosity as she helps others with what she finds easy, and since humility is particularly hard to come by in small children I hope she’s learning that too. To genuinely congratulate a friend who has done better than you at something you care about is not easy; envy comes quickly. But it feels so much better and is so much more inspiring and hopeful than the alternative.

When it comes down to it, I want to believe that good things come to good people. And I honestly believe that a little genuinely friendly competition brings the kind of self-awareness and self-confidence that’s needed to act like a good person in the world.

And all I’ve ever wanted to do is raise a good person.

Film review: Carol

Earlier this week I was delighted to be able to go along to The Pool‘s screening of Carol, followed by a Q&A with producer Elizabeth Karlsen and journalist Helen O’Hara. Carol was my LFF ‘one that got away’ – it was replaced by Trumbo, which I enjoyed a great deal, but I still felt the sting of the missed opportunity.

I remember seeing Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven in the cinema, and being blown away by its loveliness, by the graceful weaving of oppressive sadness between layers of beautifully arranged fabric. I didn’t have any doubts that Carol would be just as gorgeous, if not more so; Karlsen commented afterwards that she thought this was “Todd at the top of his game”, and I can see why. Haynes communicates in the language of sensation; he captures in just a few seconds the headiness and distraction of falling in love, the drifting in and out of focus. His storytelling has a consistently dreamlike quality, though the finely detailed and precise workmanship is always evident; Karlsen made a point of the incredibly prescriptive shotlisting which allowed the film to be shot in just 35 days. It’s not hard to believe that this was all meticulously, lovingly planned down to the last exquisitely styled stitch and button.

Both leads are excellent; Blanchett makes thorough and judicious use of that Galadriel-honed mysterious smile, and Mara’s other-worldliness is perfect for the angel who “fell from space”. And yet…. and yet.

As much as I wanted to love Carol, I couldn’t summon up more than an affectionate fondness. The tenderness between privileged Carol and awkward Therese is appealing and lovely, but while I understand the relationship from the latter’s perspective – Carol overwhelms her senses, and indeed ours – I don’t quite buy into the love story. It’s not clear that they even really like each other; of course, given the time, the place and the very real threat of their illegal relationship there was no way to have any public declarations andmost conversations would be heavily loaded. But the result is a little smothering – I longed to see them simply laugh together, just once. Conversely, “Aunt” Abby’s (a great Sarah Paulson) long-dead romantic relationship with Carol – now a deep and passionate friendship – was fascinating; I desperately wanted to see a film about their history.

If Carol were a food, it would be dessert. But, for all its Michelin-starred care, it wouldn’t be a complex, deconstructed trifle with a feather on top. It would be rice pudding, but the best rice pudding in the world: dreamy, thick; full of cream and vanilla fragrance, with the bittersweet edge of cinnamon. You’d scoop up bite after bite, revelling in its richness and rolling it around your mouth. You’d feel the warmth spreading from your core. You’d savour each tooth-clinging mouthful. But it would only be when you came to the end, scraping the last grains from the bowl, that you’d realise you’re dying for a different texture: a crystal sip of ice water or perhaps the alien crunch of a nut. Carol is sumptuous, and visually glorious and its success can only help drive change in an industry that badly needs to see beyond the tentpole releases and exceptional white male stories. But it also feels as slippery as silk, with a lack of anything really substantial to hold on to.

Many thanks to The Pool for the chance to see the film and enjoy the excellent Q&A afterwards.

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Disney / Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team and more animated shorts at the BFI London Film Festival for kids

Some of the most bargainous tickets you'll get at LFF

Some of the most bargainous tickets you’ll get at LFF

When I decided to go for it with the London Film Festival this year, I couldn’t possibly leave out my little future film fan. Ramona actually came quite late to cinema going (she’s spooked by sudden bangs and loud noises sometimes, so it can be a bit overwhelming) though she loves it now; tempting her in through the doors by explaining that it was ‘like watching a bunch of trailers’ meant that we got to experience something a little different from the usual family films – not that there’s anything wrong with those, but opening up horizons is never a bad thing.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

While the BFI has really developed its family offering in recent years, Ramona’s age group often leaves her out of proceedings; animation workshops etc are really only going to become of interest in a few years’ time, as she’s only five. However, on the final day of the festival was the ‘Animated Shorts for Younger Audiences’ collection; at a total price of £29 for the three of us it seemed really reasonable for a central London cinema trip during an event for which I’d already dropped a phenomenal amount to attend gala screenings (still paying that off; still worth it).

The first of many step and repeat boards, I'm sure.

The first of many step and repeat boards, I’m sure.

What was actually going to be in the programme was a bit of a mystery; it turned out to be 14 international animated shorts including a UK advance screening of the new Disney / Pixar short, Sanjay’s Super Team which is due to appear before The Good Dinosaur when that’s released next month. The collection was brilliantly varied, in terms of content, technique and storytelling, from a brilliant one-minute one-man whiteboard animation from a second year student to an intricate Latvian stop motion morality tale about littering.

It's not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful 'cartoonish' dress was in line with my other 'dressing by theme' attempts...

It’s not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful ‘cartoonish’ dress was in line with my other ‘dressing by theme‘ looks…

My personal favourites included a superbly funny Swedish animation about a pair of dice and a couple of ladybirds on an adventure (hereafter, all ladybirds shall be known as ‘Bengt’ to me). I also loved a rather bleak but beautiful Canadian take on environmentalism positioned ironically around the lyrics of Que Sera Sera (pretty sure that whisked straight over Ramona’s head but she liked the cars). She particularly enjoyed a sweet film about a bird that takes a break from its migration pattern to dance with a tortoise on a beach; I thought it was beautiful yet overlong, but it was lovely to compare notes and find we really loved different things for different reasons. I found a charming French tale of a cuddly toy soothing a baby delightful; Ramona thought the battered toy (“that grey thing”) was really scary.

We were all a bit blown away by Sanjay’s Super Team,  which really made me want to see it as a full-length film, combining the visual punch of The Incredibles with  a wide-eyed, Nemo-esque sweetness. The only issue was its positioning in the programme which felt a bit odd; dropping a famous animation heavyweight in near the end but not at the end meant that quite a lot of the kids seemed to check out after that. In fact, my beloved ladybird Bengt was on last, which was another odd choice as it was one of the longest pieces and also the only on to require subtitles. Not generally  a problem for my little reader, but she wasn’t the youngest child there by a long shot and putting the one that requires the most concentration at the end seemed to be a bit of a scheduling no-no (and in fact she wriggled and jiggled and wiggled and finally expressed boredom, which earned her some steely glances and sharp words from her mother).

There were evidently some pains taken to make it feel more like a festival; the films were introduced, there was some Q&A at the beginning, and after each set of two or three we were actually introduced to some of the filmmakers for little interviews. Unfortunately this was mostly lost on the audience; the younger children figeted and checked out and their parents couldn’t listen while trying to keep a lid on things – and I did see some leave before the end.

So do I recommend it? Yes, definitely, though I wouldn’t take the ‘younger audiences’ label to mean – as many of us obviously did – youngest audiences. Ramona loved the setting, wanting to “send a message to those BFI people to tell them how BEAUTIFUL it is in here” and really enjoyed some of the films, and she’s insistent she wants to come back to watch movies at BFI Southbank. However, she’s wavering much more over the shorts programme, because the stop-start nature meant she couldn’t properly engage with what she was seeing.  My personal recommendation would either be to play straight through, allowing time for various Q&As at the end for those families with older kids, or to have more of a quiz type format to the breaks (as she really liked it when asked questions).

Roll on next year!

Hairy Scary’s Bad Day: Squarehead returns!



One of my continually most popular posts – and this thrills me to bits – is my piece about I Am Squarehead, a simply delightful picture book about being oneself, written by Simon Frank and illustrated by Margit Mulder.

As I mentioned in that post, I came to Squarehead because I already knew Simon – and one of his business partners, Rochelle, is a good friend. Since then I’ve got to know Margit as well, and when I heard there was another Squarehead book on the horizon I was delighted. Better yet, Simon asked if there was any way I could lend a hand with some social media support around the launch; I agreed with practically unseemly haste.



Hairy Scary’s Bad Day picks up where I Am Squarehead left off, but this time focusses on the whuffling beastie Squarehead brought home with him. Hairy Scary is big, and gallumphing and looks pretty terrifying – but everyone knows he’s really an enormous sweetie who gives the best cuddles ever. So how on earth is he going to measure up against the scariest monsters in the world?

This week everyone’s been buzzing about Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill, who suddenly obliterated her online presence – leaving behind a trail of genuine captions which give away the secrets behind each perfect ‘candid’ snap. I’m not sure that came as a surprise to anyone in her audience – especially not her young and very savvy followers – but the willingness to be honest about it was refreshing and more than a little painful. We are so very scared of not measuring up, all the time, and social media can be this constant reminder that everyone else is doing a little bit better than you – their lives a little cooler, more privileged, more beautiful. Of course it’s a carefully edited snapshot, and we know that really but we still, I think, don’t quite believe it somewhere in our fearful, competitive, paranoid lizard brains. It seems to me that the message of Hairy Scary’s Bad Day – that you can only be the best and happiest YOU you can be, regardless of the boxes others seem to tick – couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Our kids are growing up at a time when it’s normal to have a very public record of everything you do; it needn’t be the complete story of who you are.

And yet of course it was Instagram I turned to when I discovered – completely by surprise – that I’d earned a mention in the acknowledgements for the book. My first ever, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy to sit in the faintest glow of reflected light from this very special series.

Apparently Chinwag might star in the next one – dog lovers watch this space!

I Am Squarehead and Hairy Scary’s Bad Day are available now from www.iamsquarehead.com and Daunt Books. Toys and more coming soon…

Matchy matchy: vintage BFI London Film Festival looks

As I might have mentioned at the end of each of my BFI London Film Festival posts this past week: I’m an enormous nerd.

That means I have really nerdy ideas. Like, say, thematically matching what I was wearing to each of the three galas I was lucky enough to snag tickets to. But since I know I’m talking to a similarly nerdy audience – at the point at which my photos of frocks overtook my admittedly grainy photo of the actual Tom Hiddleston on Instagram I knew it wasn’t just me that thinks this shiz is important – I thought I’d share the looks together here, too.


Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette

Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette. I don’t know why I look worried and I hate that my hair was wet.

Well, I don’t have any turn of the last century dresses, and if I did I’d probably be too terrified to wear them (and frankly too tall and broad around the waist). But I know my women’s movement colours, and I really like green. This Collectif checked dress – a couple of seasons old, but a version is still available – offered a bit of a bluestocking twist. Together with a white scarf and a hint of purple eyeshadow, the only thing I regret was missing the opportunity to throw in some pin curls.



All “model’s” own, including the comedy pose.

This was a bit of a struggle. Until the last minute I had my Tomorrowland black 1940s sheer dress lined up, but it didn’t feel quite right. For one, the film is late enough into the 1940s that a 1950s look felt more appropriate; for another I just wanted an excuse to wear a different dress. The day before this gorgeous shirtwaister arrived from Cheshire Vintage, and I knew its moment had come. What’s not clear from the photo are the gorgeous gold threads running through the red (not actually intended as a reference to Communism at the time, but hey…).


Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

I don’t really do 70s. But I will do glam. This 1960s lurex dress felt exactly right, particularly as the fabric actually has starbursts and swirls in it on close examination. Topped off with a blocky statement necklace but tamed with thick tights and a cardi, it turned out to be pretty well-judged as a summary of the film: a brash, violent message tempered by nuanced, sometimes muted performances.

I feel rather delighted to have gone three for three and seen films that were vastly different but all thoroughly enjoyable. I only have one festival experience left, right at the other end – a selection of short films for young viewers with which I’ll introduce our daughter to the festival. This year was actually my first ever attendance because I always thought of it as something I’d never get a chance to do – but with patience, a glacially slow website and a BFI membership as a Christmas present, diving in was one of the best decisions I ever made. I intend to take Ramona every year and make her every bit the nerd I am; I only look forward to the day when she might be persuaded to dress up with me.

Film review: High-Rise – Empire Gala and UK Premiere, BFI London Film Festival

Not even quite all of the massive ensemble cast of High-Rise.

Not even quite all of the massive ensemble cast of High-Rise.

“I went in with no expectations, and came out with no clue.”

My husband’s bafflement was in some ways at complete odds with my own experience – I went in with fearful expectations came out generally relieved – but at the same time I could relate. High-Rise is a beautifully bewildering experience, as well any combination of Ballard and Wheatley might be.

Confession: I’ve never read any Ballard (I shall, I shall, hold the nagging). I’ve also never seen any of Wheatley’s previous films. I’ve read about them, lingeringly, fascinatedly – and then backed off wondering if I have the stomach for them. My colleague Suni, when he heard what I was going to see, gleefully told me about how far out of his comfort zone Kill List  had taken him. Yet this one seemed like the one to take the plunge with. The lure of the star was there, of course, but more than that what I knew of the book seemed to suggest now was the perfect time for it to come to life on screen.

Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss field questions after the screening.

Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss field questions after the screening.

Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the 25th floor of a beguiling and beautiful new high-rise block, quickly discovering the hierarchy within via the bewitching Charlotte (Sienna Miller) – herself only on the 26th floor but still apparently a door to the architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), safely cushioned in the rarefied air of the 40th. Along with his neighbour Wilder (Luke Evans) – a mass of neurotic, barely concealed rage complete with perma-pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) – Laing is swept up in the social climbing until the lights literally start to go out, and the social infrastructure disintegrates as rapidly and catastrophically as the physical.

Following the canny yet childishly naive everyman through the nightmare landscape where everyone else seems to hold the puzzle pieces without ever revealing the whole picture is always an unsettling experience; with the 1970s setting, the drugs, debauchery and dog-eating, it would be easy for High-Rise to just be an exhausting mass of colours, of noise. Wheatley, however, is far, far too skilled to fall into the trap of directing an extended music video. Far from being a technicolour descent into madness, it’s the shades of grey – metaphorical and literal – in High-Rise that make it so compelling.

More Q&A - Hiddleston possibly answering questions about preparing for the role with a pathologist visit.

More Q&A – Hiddleston possibly answering questions about preparing for the role with a pathologist visit.

Hiddleston provides the almost perfectly calm centre around which the madness swirls; his rare moments of animation are almost immediately countered – withdrawn by an apology or an outstretched hand. Jarring against this is a spectacularly eerie performance from Evans who paints a figure both shambolically laughable and terrifyingly unhinged. In between Miller dances on the edge of disaster, switching roles as easily as she changes outfits: doting mother, louche party girl, mysterious stranger.

In many ways, High-Rise could best be described as a full-length McGuffin. As much as it doesn’t shy away from the grotesque or graphic, you’re left with the lingering suspicion that almost everything of note has happened where you – and Laing – can’t see it. Notes are written and screwed up without the contents being revealed. People are carried away and reappear some time later changed – but exactly what’s happened in the interim is unclear. When it comes to some of the most vile acts, including a particularly violent rape, almost nothing is seen – but a central suicide is lingered over in almost unbearable detail. The film’s priorities are Laing’s selfish, confused, insecure priorities – ours, in other words. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about the messages here, but – odd as it is to say in a film that includes a dream sequence with dancing cabin crew and a bludgeoning fist fight over a can of paint – there are layers of nuance in the delivery, and there can be a delicacy and beauty in the brutality.

I thought that at best I might emerge from High-Rise not traumatised. Instead I was oddly energised. In the Q&A afterwards, all the cast agreed that if they moved into the building they’d all have been out and in a hotel after the first night. But I think they might be lying to themselves just a little bit. After all, as they looked out onto the avid faces of the audience eagerly hanging onto their every word, they must have known that to us mere mortals they do, to some extent, represent the 40th floor. And the top is always the last bit to come toppling down.

No disclosure: I attended in my own capacity as a BFI Member. And because I’m an enormous nerd, I wore a vintage 1960s gold lurex dress. See thoughts on Suffragette here; Trumbo here.

See the program and get tickets for further #LFF events here.

Film Review: Trumbo – Accenture Gala & European Premiere, BFI London Film Festival

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, John Goodman, Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston introduce the film

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, John Goodman, Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston introduce the film

Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. That’s the only explanation for the baffling accolades heaped on Birdman (a two hour overtelling of what could have been a tremendous short film). But in Trumbo, Hollywood might have also found a film that is worthy of the self-adulation, coming as it does with a hefty dose of occasionally blistering home truths.

Between 1947 and 1970, Dalton Trumbo was at the heart of a famously dark period in America’s politics. A rich and successful screenwriter, he might have been initially untouched by the Communist phobia and witch-hunting that began to sweep the nation, but eventually it came to Hollywood – and did its damndest to bring Trumbo and hosts of other individuals, prominent and not, in the industry to their knees.

It helps that he was a considerable character – in introducing the film, star Bryan Cranston said that to play such a flamboyant figure he told director Jay Roach he would “go out on a limb, and if you hear it start to crack, please pull me back”. But actually what’s remarkable about Cranston’s performance is how restrained it is; he leaves ample room for humour and complexity, for dark moods and wry asides, for self-importance and self-consciousness. If you’re going to write about a Hollywood screenwriting legend, you need a script that sparkles and thankfully John McNamara delivers in spades, managing to tell a very serious story with a generous dollop of wry humour – even a little slapstick for good measure.

While the luminous Diane Lane is sadly underused, Helen Mirren’s sequence of brief appearances as Hedda Hopper – each more dripping with devious malice than the last – are stand-outs. She made reference to her glorious array of hats, and indeed in a film with an overall stunning design there could be costume honours dished out just for her, but she commands the screen with a beautifully balanced performance, a glint of the unhinged in her eye and a seductive drawl in the delivery maintained even throughout some of her most shockingly vicious lines. Bolstering the female cast, Elle Fanning provides a sharp, sweet note of personal conscience and youthful idealism that balances the many scenes of bickering men wreathed in cigarette smoke. Meanwhile the ever-reliable John Goodman blasts through in bursts of heightened comic relief and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje jeeringly reveals Trumbo’s previously unexamined prejudices in a brief but memorable performance.

Trumbo naturally mythologises the man at its centre, as all watchable biopics do, but it is careful to provide balance and reality, to show flaws and misfired rage. The tropes are all there – self-aggrandisement, quirky working habits, troubled relationships – but the tone is continually, self-consciously light. The seriousness of the message is never lost precisely because it’s generally not laid on too thick; the moments of pure emotional punch deliver because they’re well-padded with sparkle. This is Hollywood at its finest – entertainment on a knife edge.

Dalton Trumbo only lived to see one of his two Oscars finally listed in his name. I suspect Bryan Cranston might be polishing one of his own before too long.

Another opening, another show...

Another opening, another show… Trumbo is on general release in the UK in January 2016.

No disclosure: I attended in my own capacity as a BFI Member. And because I’m an enormous nerd, I wore a true vintage 1950s shirtwaister. See thoughts on Suffragette here; High-Rise here.

See the program and get tickets for further #LFF events here.