'Ellen' Is a Film About Struggling to Not Disappear in Modern Britain

You might have had a girl like Ellen at your school – one day she's there, her hair full of nits, no PE kit. The next day she's gone.

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01 September 2016, 10:36am

Jessica Barden as Ellen (All photos courtesy of Channel 4)

There's a scene in Ellen – a new television film on Channel 4 tonight, not the talk show hosted by America's favourite gay woman – in which the two protagonists, 14-year olds Ellen and Kayla, look down on the financial towers of London's Docklands. "It's fucking marvellous," says Ellen. She wants to be a part of it, but it wants to keep her hidden away.

Ellen is – in the words of Jessica Barden, the actor who plays her – "like an animal raising itself". She's angry and abrasive. She has huge nits in her hair. She doesn't go to school. She has a lot of energy but it has nowhere to go. People are too frightened or disgusted by her to see how vulnerable she is.

Like the children in The Night of the Hunter or A Room for Romeo Brass, Ellen is at the mercy of the adults around her. Depending on how lucky we were, we probably all had moments as children when we couldn't tell what an adult was going to do, when we were in danger of being hurt by them and there was no way of avoiding that. Ellen faces this problem every day.

The people who should be looking after her have gone missing. Her father has a new family and doesn't want to see her. Her mother, played by Jaime Winstone, who is less than ten years older than the 24-year old Barden, is a child herself, unable to do anything except fetch drinks for the men that prowl through the flat they live in with Ellen's grandmother, who is on her deathbed. Those men are dangerous and they have designs on Ellen.

"I wanted to write a play about the experience of being a young woman and looking at vulnerability and our idea of vulnerability," says Sarah Quintrell, Ellen's writer. "You've got these young people who, on the outside, can seem very capable of looking after themselves. You wouldn't think of Ellen as being vulnerable: she's mouthy, she's got an answer for everything, she's a kid you might want to avoid sitting next to on the bus... and yet, she is a child. She's got no say in anything to do with her life."

Ellen marks the television-directing debut of Mahalia Belo. It's also Quintrell's first time as a television scriptwriter. While she says Ellen isn't autobiographical, she tells me the world she grew up in in Croydon, south London, was much the same. Having previously worked mainly as an actor, a few years ago she decided – "for no reason" – to write a film.

She'd read in an interview with the screenwriter Paul Abbott that the actor David Threlfall, the star of Abbott's Shameless, was notoriously picky about scripts. So rather than send it to a friend who might be nice to her out of politeness, she sent it to Threlfall, a stranger known for being hard. He loved it, and his support led to her writing a play and then getting Ellen made.

Quintrell, director Belo and Jessica Barden, who I interviewed together, are a tight team. They wanted to tackle issues of vulnerability, class, friendship and gender in complementary ways. Barden, who grew up in Yorkshire, says she knew lots of "Ellens" when she was a kid – children with nits in their hair, no PE kit, mud on their clothes and on their hands; children who were ignored and neglected. "No one ever asked her anything," she says of one of these girls. "She was from a huge family and they squatted a flat with no water in it. If someone threw a chair across the room, they'd get loads of attention, but someone who was quite clearly massively neglected was just ignored. She disappeared one day and never came back".

Barden, who recently starred in The Lobster, is hilarious, full of energy and looks much younger than 24. She doesn't give a shit, either. When she was 18, she auditioned for a part in a Sofia Coppola film and was asked by one of the Americans in the room why she hadn't been in any of the Harry Potter films. "Because I don't have any famous, rich parents,, she shot back. It was only later that she remembered Coppola herself has a famous, rich parent.

Ellen is a film close to her heart. "I always try and find scripts like this because I was raised really working class and for a long time I struggled to understand why I was allowed to do this job," she says. "Why was I allowed to travel and get picked up by a car and go to an airport and go to a nice hotel? I have such a rich, full life, and yet I come from the same place as people like Ellen. People like that are ignored. I think lots of actors do this: they try and give people who are ignored a voice."

Providing this voice doesn't need to be an earnest undertaking, though. Quintrell, Belo and Barden are all adamant that Ellen is not a piece of social realism and that capturing the humour that powers friendship was important. For all of them, it is a kind of fairytale, which makes sense because fairytales are often about vulnerable children trying to find their way in a world full of danger. Barden says that Ellen was made by "people that understand working class life and therefore weren't playing at understanding it. There are lots of things around that show a poor or working class background, and there's a granddad that used to be a miner and they've all got accents, and there are wonderful things in them – but they aren't over the top. Our characters are not cartoon characters."

Quintrell doesn't think enough stories about working class life are told. Ellen is a film about a young girl struggling not to disappear, and there is a cultural erasure in our society whereby the same stories about the same people get told again and again, with the stories of other people ignored and untold.

At the heart of Ellen is a story about female friendship. Kayla, played by newcomer Yasmin Monet Prince, could be a lifeline for Ellen. The friendship they form is a deep and true one, but it is, once again, at the mercy of the adults that surround Ellen. "One of the key things for me was the female friendship," says Belo. "Getting a best mate is like falling in love."

It was important to all three women that this friendship be depicted in a different way: "Female friendship is rarely on television anyway, and when it is, it tends to be hand-holding and, 'Let's lie on each other and look quite giggly.' I don't recognise that. What's true to me is that, with Kayla and Ellen, the only time they have physical contact is when they're beating each other up or whacking each other with pillows." The love between the two girls is there, but it is tougher and it is not dreamed up by a man for the pleasure of a male viewer. Both Quintrell and Belo are fans of La Haine: they wanted to make something that was also "tough and elegant".

Jessica Barden and Joe Dempsie in 'Ellen'

The tendency for female friendship to be depicted in a particular way brings us to the subject of women in television. Belo tells me that she was the only woman in her year at film school and that, while the men have rocketed into great jobs in television, for her and other women, it is much harder. "I think people are scared of difference, particularly when a lot of money is involved," she says. "And so people are safe and go with what has been done before, with people who look like the ones who did things before."

Quintrell has had a similar experience. "On the one hand, I just want to be 'Writer Sarah Quintrell', rather than 'Female Writer Sarah Quintrell', but maybe it's important to be that right now with the industry the way it is," she says. "I've got a feeling it all happened in the 80s," adds Belo. "The female directors I know from then say they all thought it was going to change, and it didn't." The same can be said, thinks Quintrell, of working class writers and directors in television. "I'd love to think that someone like Ellen could end up writing for television, but at the moment I can't quite see it... The conditions that caused the riots in 2011 are worse. The situation is getting worse, not better."

For writer, director and star, though, making Ellen has been a chance to show what they can do. Given that chance, they've made a powerful, moody and affecting film about what it means to be truly vulnerable, about the people society forgets and about a young girl, angry, defiant, but disappearing.

Ellen airs on Channel 4 at 10PM on Thursday the 1st of September, and is then online on All4.

@oscarrickettnow

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