One reason to recommend I Am Ruth
is Mia Honey Threapleton, the daughter of Kate Winslet (best to get that out front first). Of course, I Am Ruth
won a BAFTA for best drama and also a BAFTA for Winslet herself this year, but in many ways the show belongs to Threapleton, and it is through her teenage character that all anxious parents who can bring themselves to watch this painful drama will see their own family distress acted out. Do not let this put you off, but instead see this as a way of gaining more understanding about what young people have to contend with in modern technology, ie smartphones and social media, which, if you are over 40, you did not.
Dominic Savage's group of dramas, divided into three series, seven stories in all, brings to the small screen large issues, such as mental health, psychological abuse and, here, youth and trolling, involving self harm on the part of the child and desperation on the part of the mother. Each drama focuses on a woman, and is a stand-alone story, written in collaboration with the leading actress in each one, such as Vicky McClure (2019), Letitia Wright, Lesley Manville (both 2021). Thus there is some improvisation, and with that, and the hand-held camera work, there is an immediacy and a sense almost of intrusion in the filming.
It was an article by Gillian Tett in the Financial Times Magazine
in May that was so eloquent about the harm to children of smartphones and social media that convinced me to brace myself and watch I Am Ruth
. Research by a group called 'Sapien Labs', studying mental health, shows that Gen Z's mental state is worse than that of previous generations, dropping more in the past 10 years, a fall linked to the proliferation of smartphones among the young. Children who had smartphones at an earlier age fared worse in terms of mental trauma. What Tett focuses on is the idea of 'social self', how we view ourselves and relate to others. This is a big discussion and leads to family battles.
In I Am Ruth
, it is not so much a battle as a siege, carried out in close domestic quarters, claustrophobic and cramped in its scenes and sensations. First, though, we meet Ruth. She is at her exercise class, and from the very start Winslet gives a performance that suggests she is the problem, while the story is telling you that her daughter Freya is the problem. We never know where the husband/boyfriend/father went. That is simply a black hole. Interesting. Never spoken about.
One could conclude that underneath Ruth's rapidly unravelling home life there is an unknown private life that is equally distressing, but one never knows. She does not want to see a counsellor for herself, nor for her daughter. One might suggest, tentatively, that Ruth is projecting something about her own sense of self-worth on to the less armoured personality of the teenage Freya. Context is everything, yet the viewer is deprived of something key.
Freya, in an amazing, touching and convincing portrayal by Threapleton, is at the very edge of madness, utterly helpless in her attempts to rediscover a personality she has lost to the versions of herself she is posting continuously on the internet, with photos from her smartphone. She poses, pouts and films, and one wants to weep for her. Previously a good student, she has succumbed to this loss of 'social self' and cannot build another. She skips school, she is insolent and thoughtless. An older brother, away at uni, Billy, has seemingly stepped in to be a sounding board for his mother's woes about his younger sister. Ruth, who sees herself as 'strong' does not have the insight to see that while he is male, he is still a child himself.
There is no doubt that mother and daughter do love each other, but somehow they cannot reach one another. After a frightening incident of self cutting, at last there is some professional help. Freya says, finally being able to express herself: 'I feel lost, and not where I wanted to be this year. I cannot get in touch with myself any more'. She is out of control and frightened, but her mother, while appearing to know what she is doing, is equally lost, while denying weakness.
Not everything can be blamed on the use of smartphones. There has also been a hiatus for young people during the covid pandemic. Basically, it is a new social world, and one which has taken youth and adult somewhat by surprise, by stealth almost. As between Ruth and Freya, only more frank communication will lead to any solution. It will not suffice to say, 'the phone is making you ill'.
The scenes between mother and daughter, poignant with emotion, ring true. Freya is utterly maddening, it is true. However, a mother who was not somehow sunk in her own psychological state, while seeing the daughter as the cause of it all, would be more likely to see through the charade that Freya enacts. Winslet's performance has received most of the plaudits, but it could be called Who Is Freya?
and the BAFTA would go to the next generation.
The story is intercut with scenes of Ruth swimming in the ocean, walking in at first from a beach. It is hard to know if this is real, or if it is a metaphor, or indeed a dream. Whatever it is, naturally it brings to mind the Stevie Smith poem, and it is hard to know whether Ruth is waving or drowning.