Written and Directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Run Time: 122 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Set in the bleak concrete mazes of a housing project in England’s Essex region, Andrea Arnold’s second feature, Fish Tank, is determined to show us just how grim life is for some. Maybe not as grim as what Precious showed us, another film about a teenage girl trying to climb out of the hellhole she lives in. Compared to Precious, Fish Tank‘s heroine Mia, the 15-year-old girl at whose heels we follow throughout the movie, has a lot more going for her, especially in the looks department. Still, like Precious, Mia has a mean-spirited mother who drinks too much and spends quality time with her daughter by pushing her around and screaming epithets at her. And, like Precious, Mia’s bleak surroundings feel like they might swallow her up, leaving her without a future beyond the fish tank she’s living in. (The movie’s title, Fish Tank, refers to the big windows that cover one wall of each of the project’s apartments.)
Nevertheless, in a breakout performance by non-professional Katie Jarvis, Mia gives us the solid impression she is not going to go down without a fight. Whatever else the lack of love at home has done, it has made her tough as nails. We see her defiance as she deals with everyone. She yells her mom, tells everyone she bumps into to bugger off, calls her younger sister fuck face, and gives such a hard head butt to one of the b-girl teenagers who hang around the housing project that it causes her nose to bleed.
Mia is an angry young woman all right, a fuse ready to blow. The only thing that calms her down, besides downing beers, is her dancing. Like the hoop dreams of inner-city black youth, she sees dance as a means of escape. She hides out in one of the project’s empty apartments where she lays out her CD player and mini speakers, and starts break dancing to hip hop music. She dances without joy, however, her shoulders in a perpetual hunch. Here, she looks more like a caged animal than a defiant teenager-a fish in a tiny bowl. This is one sullen, unhappy and lonely girl-morbid adolescence times a thousand.
Mia’s morose existence takes a turn with the sudden intrusion of a bloke her mom has picked up at a bar, and who suddenly decides, for reasons that remain mysterious, to move in with them for a while. Connor (Michael Fassbender) oozes sexy charm in an offhanded, fun-loving way that all three of the girls in the household respond favorably to, although bad-tempered Mia doesn’t show it at first. Connor also seems like a decent sort, being employed, and he exhibits a genuine interest in Mia that borders on the paternal. In fact, the audience never really knows what to think of this fellow who bangs mom at night and makes tea for Mia the next morning, something you can bet her mom never did.
Ms. Arnold directs the budding friendship, or whatever you want to call it, with assurance, making sure the two stay outside of obvious seductive rituals, so that when something sexual does happen, it is so swift that it takes us by surprise, leaving us as breathless as Mia, but bitter at our own self-deception. Perhaps we should have seen it coming, just as Mia should have seen its aftermath coming, but in the end, we’re all confused teenagers who want to feel loved, to feel special.
The film’s penultimate act contains some disturbing moments that feel out of sorts with the rest of the film. They have at their core the explosive violence that a girl like Mia can’t always control, but they conjured feelings of such dread that I admit I had to fast forward through the screener I was watching, something I have never done before, although now I’m older and wimpier. I won’t give the film away by saying more (I’ve said too much already), but neither will I mar this review with another deception, however unintentional. Mia may be a hot-tempered teenager, but she’s not stupid. And the film’s ending even gives us a glimpse that she may even be strong enough to get away from her miserable life.
Fish Tank could easily have turned into a maudlin and overly heart-wrenching tale, but it’s gritty and tough instead, just like its heroine. Credit must be given to Andrea Arnold’s technical skill as a director in keeping the film from veering away from the extreme naturalism at its center. It must have been a great leap of faith to cast a complete non-professional, and an awkward, tentative one at that, to play Mia, and then to have her not so much “act” in the film as just “be.” But Ms. Arnold struck gold with Katie Jarvis, who was discovered by the film’s casting director while yelling at her boyfriend on a subway platform.
Ms. Jarvis’s lack of acting skill makes Mia’s confusion and awkwardness appear all the more genuine, and her performance is nicely offset by the deftness with which Mr. Fassbender plays Connor. Michael Fassbender is such a charismatic actor that it takes us no time at all to understand why Connor was able to ingratiate himself into the lives of these women. And his subtle performance gives us just the mixed messages we need in order to keep our own jaded hearts beating up to the very end.
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