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.
Surely one of the more repellent creations to inhabit arthouse screens this year, Raúl Peralta is a glowering brute of a man. Unemployed and undistracted in Pinochet’s Chile, he’s one of those desperate characters the movies are drawn to, nursing big, illusory dreams about turning his life around through a stonefaced, stiff impersonation of Tony Manero, the working-class Brooklyn dancer played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He sits through mostly empty matinee screenings at the local cinema, then rehearses his moves on the old, rotting stage at a squalid little nightclub while putting the make on the three women in his life: the club’s owner, Wilma (Elsa Poblete), his girlfriend, Cony (Amparo Noguera), and — why the hell not? — Cony’s nubile daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus). And he’s a rank opportunist who, as often as not, sees his countrymen each as minor obstacles between him and his next little stab at happiness.