If your night is likely to include drinks, have them beforehand: This harrowing documentary about the real-life ravages of alcohol and drug abuse might leave you guilt-ridden about tippling afterward. An unusually strong world premiere from last year's Tribeca Film Festival, The Arbor isn't a wide-ranging clinical study, nor a social investigation, but rather a compound personal tragedy. The setting, atmospherically lensed, is England's North, specifically a brutally poor housing project in Yorkshire. Out of this forlorn place came the gifted Andrea Dunbar, who, at age 18 in 1980, became a produced playwright at London's Royal Court Theatre; we watch her sour slice of kitchen-sink miserablism, The Arbor, as the film remounts it in the (cleaned-up) public green of the environs it chronicled. Today's residents watch nervously as actors tear each other down in a living room wracked by domestic abuse.
Yet Clio Barnard's adventurous doc isn't so much concerned with Dunbar as it is with the aftermath: the three children she had with three different fathers, before her untimely death in a pub in 1990. Other performers, one playing sad-eyed daughter Lorraine, speak directly to the camera, mouthing the words of prerecorded interviews, a technique called verbatim theater. It's not as showy as it sounds---you never quite lose sight of the disconnect, but actually come to lean on it for self-protective distance. (The alternatives of archival rawness or fictionalized tidiness would be far worse: For a taste of the latter, Film Forum is presenting 1987's Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, from an autobiographical screenplay by Dunbar.) The Arbor's pummeling second half begins with the collapse of its celebrity subject; the following spirals of self-destruction make you suspect that some childhoods are simply too hard to escape. Tough, worthy stuff.
Watch the trailer