As Kate Winslet stepped on stage to receive the BAFTA for her performance in I Am Ruth, she said in her acceptance speech, “We want our children back.”
Dominic Savage’s dark and depressing TV film, the latest in his I Am… series, is about a mother and daughter battling the evil effects of social media addiction. “I Am Ruth was made for parents and their children, for families who feel that they are held hostage by the perils of the online world, for parents who wish they could still communicate with their teenagers, but who no longer can,” she said, “And for young people who have become addicted to social media and its darker sides: this does not need to be your life. To people in power, and to people who can make change: please, criminalise harmful, please eradicate harmful content. We don’t want to lie awake terrified for our children’s mental health. We don’t want it, we want our children back. And to any young person who might be listening, who feels that they are trapped in an unhealthy world: Please ask for help. There is no shame in admitting that you need support. It will be there just ask for it.”
It was a powerful statement, which must have affected the parents and young people who have been affected by the nasty side of social media. In I Am Ruth, Winslet plays the harried mother to Freya (her real-life daughter, Mia Threapleton), a teenager, who is obviously suffering from body issues and cyber-bullying. She locks herself in her room, posing for semi-nude selfies, which results in her phone pinging all night as the comments flow in.
She refuses to communicate with her mother, and the conversations they have quickly dissolve into accusations and recriminations and Freya shutting out her mother even more. Ruth, a working woman, whose social life consists of weekly spinning sessions in the gym, does everything she can to reach out to Freya; her plaintive calls to her daughter consist of endearments like “sweetheart” and “darling” but all she gets in return is sullen silence or angry tears.
Social media addiction is a very real problem today, and the pressure on young people — more so on teenage girls — to conform to some strange cult-like demands can affect their mental health. Freya, who used to be a bright kid with good grades, starts sliding in her studies too, as her teacher tells Ruth. He recommends counselling, which Ruth thinks is an embarrassment to her. Even if the mother is available and sympathetic, as Ruth clearly is, society is quick to judge her as incompetent if her child shows signs of mental illness. Freya’s hostility affects Ruth too, as she tells her daughter; she wants to be a strong, normal woman, but Freya’s distress is pulling her down.
This kind of social isolation is a frightening aspect of Western society — Ruth seems to have no friends and no one to turn to except her teenage son, Billy, who lives elsewhere. Surprisingly, for a young girl, Freya does not have any friends either, and her interactions with the outside world consist of an online community that is evidently toxic. The father is missing — no mention of him — so the mantle of male authority figure falls on Billy, who comes through for Ruth. He turns up when she needs him, and offers a degree of warmth and care to his sister that she obviously does not get from the strange men online, for whose approval she posts those risqué photos. It is a bit unfair to mothers, to imply that they are inadequate as single parents. Ruth suffers (the drowning in the sea metaphor is used to portray her helplessness) because she is a good mother; if she were to be selfish or uncaring, she would have either ignored the daughter’s tantrums or sent her away.
Savage keeps the story — co-written by Winslet — limited to as few characters as possible, so he does not open it out to examine the family’s lack of a support system. The show’s producer Krishnendu Majumdar has explained the deliberately minimalistic look of the films in the I Am… series as “intimate… as though we are eavesdropping on the characters.” In the film, Winslet’s face is scrubbed of any trace of vanity, and the intensity of her emotions is searing.
The series tell “painful stories that happen to women,” as Winslet said, which she believes need to be heard. In the modern world so many of women’s previous issues remain, while new ones have been added. The first woman in the series, Nicola, was a hairdresser stuck in a dysfunctional relationship; the next, Kirsty, was a single woman, deep in debt, who is nudged towards sex work; Hannah worries about the ticking of her biological clock; Victoria’s seemingly perfect life was just a veneer; Danielle had to deal with issues of consent in dating today; Maria turns 60 and wonders if she could have had a different life.
The women in the series are all at crossroads and their happiness depends on what decisions they take. The point is that if a woman takes a wrong turn, does she have to be punished forever? Women have been told all through the ages, and are still being hectored, about waiting for the right guy, starting a family of perfect kids, and ageing gracefully with a partner by their side. Now add a successful career and flawless skin to the list of what women want. But what if the fairy tale does not happen to everybody? And if it does, what if it does not turn out to be what Mills & Boon or movie romcoms promised?
I Am… is about wrong turns and pitfalls. What it doesn’t do is suggest an escape hatch or a Plan B. That is something women have to figure out for themselves.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author