Fish Tank walks well-trod ground, but it’s still riveting from start to finish. Director Andrea Arnold proves that her debut feature, Red Road, was no fluke — she has a great eye for urban landscapes and a real way with actors. Set in Essex County, England, Fish Tank is all about Mia, an obstreperous 15-year-old with a stack of chips on her shoulder and a way with hip-hop dance moves. The central performance by Katie Jarvis is the bright ball of energy around which the whole film revolves, and she’s pretty terrific — she gives an easy, naturalistic performance that’s pure teenage girl, whether she’s bloodying the collective nose of her peer group or (symbol alert) pounding the hell out of a padlock that keeps a friendly gray horse chained up on one of the neighborhood’s desolate, nearly empty lots that smells of young men and menace.
Mia lives in a dingy council estate with her mother, Joanne (an awesomely carnal Kierston Wareing), her little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), and liters upon liters of alcohol. Newly arrived in their lives is handsome Connor (Michael Fassbender), taking on the appearance of a sexy, slender guardian angel in low-slung blue jeans — and don’t think young Mia doesn’t notice how well he’s built. The gentle, good-humored Connor crystallizes something of a power struggle between Joanne, who shags the bloke in her room upstairs, and Mia, who sees him as mentor, father figure, and lust object in some undetermined order.
Anyone whose cable package includes IFC and Sundance won’t be much surprised by anything that happens, storywise, in a script that sometimes plays like it was written in an indie-films Mad Libs exercise. Mia’s infatuation with the dashing Connor comes to a head; her mother threatens to send Mia away to a boarding school; Mia plans to audition for a dance troupe; Connor turns out to be not quite heavensent. “What’s wrong with you?” Mia’s mom yells. “You’re what’s wrong with me!” Mia shouts back. It’s like one of those songs you feel you can hum along to the first time you hear it on the radio.
But what matters is the way Arnold gets it all on film. She hit paydirt with the casting of Jarvis, who turns out to be compulsively watchable and hits a real sweet spot, playing Mia as pretty and brutish, sweet and thick, terribly sympathetic and inexcusably crass. There’s a great scene late in the film that culminates in a confrontation where a furious Connor, who has no other real recourse, simply smacks the girl upside the head, and it works because sometimes that’s what I, the viewer, wanted to do to her. It’s a terrific performance because the character it creates feels so real: beautiful and fragile, clumsy and imperfect. Worth caring about, but so damned infuriating.
Arnold is also a wonderful photographer, especially of women’s faces in moving portraiture, and also of cityscapes. I was struck, for instance, by a terrific shot of Jarvis framed against a backdrop of cherry-pickers rising vertically toward the sky like a tiny industrial orchard, and if Arnold’s unconventional 1.33:1 aspect ratio allows her to explore that vertical motif in a few other shots, it also plays against the widescreen frame’s tendency to romanticize or even mythologize a film’s setting. As imaginative as her framing is, Arnold depicts nothing much more than the unrelenting plain clutter of Mia’s surroundings — which perhaps puts her impulsive and occasionally desperate behavior in context.
The film’s final act is in every regard its most conventional, bringing Mia to suburbia and dramatizing class resentment in low, blunt terms. To Arnold’s credit, it still feels a bit dangerous, as though Mia is really at risk of going off the rails. Though she acts in a colossally stupid, self-absorbed fashion, she’s a lost soul whose salvation still feels worth rooting for. Arnold doesn’t go for closure, or a happy ending, but there is a moment of grim joy in the film’s final minutes, as the three women — Mia, her sister, Tyler, and her mum, Joanne — say their wordless piece by dancing together to “Life’s a Bitch” by Nas. It’s a terrific moment to cap an impressive film. No rank sentiment or self-pity here. Just one tough broad and two more tough broads-in-training saying their honest goodbyes.