This is a review of <Una>, a British film from 2016, about a relationship between an adult man and a 13-year-old girl and its aftermath.
This movie is art, of course. It is about the psychological worlds of the two main characters. It deserves evaluation on that basis, and reviews have been positive.
However, it takes place against a backdrop of assumptions about how the world really operates. It is those assumptions I set out to question in this review. All information about the past is conveyed as either brief video snippets or verbal reminiscences, so detail is scanty. The movie also has long silences, punctuated by quick, soft phrases in some sort of British accent. A few of them I just couldn't understand, so I might be missing some important information.
The reconstructed story: Ray (in his 30s, perhaps?) lives next door to a good friend who has a daughter Una, age 13. He gets involved with her. We don't actually see Ray coming on to Una at all, though we can imagine that when he looks at her she can see his attraction. Una is drawn to him too and has a very active role. He works on his car in his driveway, and that is a focus for their early interactions. For instance, she leaves notes under the windshield wiper saying his girlfriend is ugly. She is constantly hanging around the car, and he later admits that he too worked on his car when it didn't need work in hopes of meeting her.
The next step we hear of is the two meeting behind some bushes in a park, where they lie on a blanket together and some considerable degree of sexual activity takes place that stops short of intercourse. The relationship takes place over a total of three months. At the end the two go away to Dover, have an attic room for the night and are due to run away to France. Here they have intercourse for the first time, twice. Una reports being sore but happy. He then tells her he is going out for just a moment, but hours go by and he does not appear. Una thinks she has been abandoned and eventually has to reveal herself as a lost child. She at first says she just ran away and Ray did nothing to her, but she reports that after she resists examination, she is drugged, examined against her will and Ray's semen is found in her vagina. She is called to testify against him by video camera, and asserts her love of him and asks Ray why he left her. We see the entire courtroom hearing this testimony. Ray serves four years in prison and some time on the sex offender registry. Una finds out only in the present that Ray actually didn't (fully) abandon her, but his courage for the elopement falters and after many hours he comes back to find she is gone, looks for her but is picked up by police, probably in the wake of Una's being discovered. Human nature being what it is, it is no big surprise if Ray's courage falters after he has had sex with her and not before, but it does not reflect well on him.
The film's present phase begins 15 years later when we find Una unhappy, having a series of one-night stands. Ray has adopted a new identity. We don't know how long she's been looking for him, but she finds his picture in a newspaper and tracks him down to his job as a supervisor in a warehouse, where she confronts him and fends off his attempts to get her out of the building to talk to her later. After many brief conversations, and after the work day is over, Ray leaves and assigns one of his employees Scott to get Una out of the building. She asks him to join her for one drink, then asks to go back to his place and seduces him (she is very attractive). But at the moment of her orgasm she suddenly breaks down. He is solicitous and comforts her. She then tells him she is in fact Ray's daughter and is staying at his house as a subterfuge to get him to reveal where he lives and take her there. She then starts to confront Ray during a gathering of 20-odd people who have gathered for drinks in the back yard. She knows before she arrives that Ray has been married for 4 years, but wandering through the house she finds he also has a stepdaughter aged roughly 12 years. He swears to Una that his interest in the girl is purely parental and he has never loved any child except her. (I believe him, as Ray knows from experience what a steep price he would have to pay and there is no reason to think the stepdaughter is coming on to him.) As one review states, we can see that Ray's life is about to implode.
That's the story. Now the evaluation:
First, Ray's behavior when Una is 13 is of course inexcusable. Doing sexual things in the bushes is totally unacceptable, trying to elope with her is worse, having intercourse with her is worse still. It takes an astounding lack of understanding on his part to think he can say he is going out for a minute and instead leave her alone for hours while he tries to get his courage up for the elopement. Even if he cared nothing at all for her, he should know she's not likely to just sit there for hours waiting for him and this is very much against his own selfish interest in every respect.
Una in the present initially tries to portray him as a pedophile, by which she means someone who preys on young girls as part of an ongoing cynical pattern. He's met plenty of such men in prison and points out he doesn't fit the pattern. No calculating serial molester is going to risk going for the girl next door and trying to elope with her. She may not believe him but his story is the truth. What's more, he's not a true pedophile. Thirteen-year-old Una has breasts and is well into puberty. Most men would find her physically attractive at a basic level. If he is especially drawn to her in a way most men would not be, he might be a hebephile. If so, he's not an exclusive one, as he has his girlfriend in the early phase of the story and in the present we see him having enthusiastic sex with his wife. Ray is not suffering from pathological attractions, but rather his actions.
Ray is not a man with a plan. He follows impulses and bad things happen. If 13-year-old Una hadn't pursued him with determination, they might never have had a relationship. Men often give in when attractive females pursue them, even when they have other commitments such as a marriage. Twenty-eight-year-old Una says he couldn't possibly be attracted to anything about 13-year-old Una but her body, but she may be suffering from low self-esteem and societal myths. Adult attractions often have a lot to do with bodies and the prospect of sex, and 13-year-olds have personalities. Temptation is laid in front of Ray and he does not resist. It is his solemn responsibility to do so, a deep moral failure when he does not, and it is fitting that he serve a prison term for not resisting. In the present, Ray owes Una an abject and deep apology, but apologies come very hard to some people who haven't achieved a level of emotional intelligence. But in the past there is no cynicism, no grooming, and the evidence on abandonment is mixed.
Where I find the biggest fault with the film is accepting the idea that Una is innocent, that she was on the path to a good life, and that Ray bears full responsibility for ruining it. There are hints that Una's relationship with her mother is not great in the present (they still live together) and perhaps wasn't in the past. Una is quite possibly seeking in Ray the sort of unconditional affection that children are supposed to get from their parents. She had three months to confide in someone about this before it escalated to the elopement. There are other ways Una could start messing up her life at age 13 -- perhaps heavy drug or alcohol use, promiscuous sex with peers, or neglecting her education. For all of those we would blame her, but somehow she is totally exempt from blame when it's an adult man who has sex with her. I am not intending to lessen the blame on Ray here, just adding some on Una. Let's consider another possible scenario. Suppose Una had taken up with a 15-year-old boyfriend who saw her for three months, had sex with her just before his family moves away, and he never speaks to her again. We might think such a boy was a cad, but he would face no legal consequences. The issue of abandonment would be the same. Just how would that have been different for Una?
One way is of course society's reaction, what pedophiles on the web sometimes call "iatrogenic harm". Una complains of being publicly humiliated as a slut, since her time with Ray is public. Let's assume that the police were justified in drugging her and taking a vaginal swab against her will (though it makes me uncomfortable). The forensic science of 15 or even 20 years ago was sufficiently advanced that they could clearly determine that it was Ray's semen. Setting aside today's actual legal requirements (which I don't know in detail), her testimony was not needed. You can imagine Ray's lawyer convincing him to take a plea bargain quietly, he would serve his four years, and Una's privacy would be protected. (In fact, I think the plea bargain would be highly likely even in today's society, and it is just a dramatic requirement to make it a full trial.) We can also speculate that Una might have been able to move forward if she had the chance to communicate with Ray right after the event, even if it was by videos censored by psychologists. If Ray had been willing at the time to make an abject apology, but also say that he did feel genuine affection for her and had not ultimately intended to abandon her, one thinks she might have healed better. It might not have ended up all that different from a 15-year-old boy abandoning her. Una's life would still be burdened by a problematic family and whatever psychological vulnerabilities that fate had dealt her. It might have been just as troubled as the one she ended up living.
I think Ray and Una both borrowed from a pattern that is in our genes. Thirteen-year-old girls have been routinely married off in other times and places, including our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and it is adaptive that they love their husbands deeply and enjoy frequent sex. Conversely, men have often married such girls and it is adaptive that they love them and desire them sexually. Our modern sensibilities disapprove because we have higher hopes for girls now -- we want them to get an education and choose their own life path when they have more maturity. But it does not make Ray's gut-level attraction (or Una's) in any way pathological. They just must not act on it. In Ray's case, the requirement is legal, and in Una's it is not but surely it is what society would urge on her in the strongest possible terms.
Perhaps in a better society, Ray could have confided to some friend or counselor that he was falling in love with Una and known that he would not be condemned for feeling that way. He would have been urgently advised not to let the friendship become sexual, knowing he would be strongly condemned for that, and tragedy could have been averted.
The strong possibility of prison did not deter Ray from sex with 13-year-old Una, but I believe it deters many other men who would be tempted by an Una. The age of consent is serving a good purpose here. I have mused in blog posts that in such a situation, if Una did not come to feel she had been wronged, Ray should not have been prosecuted. She did come to decide she had been wronged (within a few years, I would guess), so by my rule Ray would have appropriately been punished.
The film too readily accepts that Una's life troubles were entirely caused by the relationship with Ray, and too readily accepts society's narrative that she is completely without blame.