Mia, the 15-year-old protagonist of Fish Tank (2009), Andrea Arnold’s tough and brilliant second feature, moves with such speed and fury that she seems to be trying to flee not only from her bleak surroundings but also from the movie itself. The narrow, nearly square frame boxes Mia in, and Ms. Arnold’s on-the-run hand-held tracking shots increase the sense of panicky claustrophobia. Living in a cramped apartment in a British housing project that stands like a cluster of megaliths in the middle of nowhere, Mia is at once trapped and adrift, unable to contain or to express the feelings seething beneath the blank, sullen mien she usually presents to the world.
In the first scenes she comes across a group of girls practicing hip-hop dance moves on a patch of asphalt. She taunts and provokes these apparent rivals, pushing the confrontation toward violence and delivering a nose-breaking head butt to one of them. A few minutes later Mia is in a fenced-in vacant lot trying to free a horse tethered to a concrete block. She swerves from rage to tenderness, and may not even know which is which.
What does Mia want? To be free, to be safe, to be left alone, to be loved. The contradictions of adolescence have rarely been conveyed with such authenticity and force. Though Mia is poor, unruly and obviously, in social-work parlance, “at risk”— her mother (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister, with whom she lives, are equally volatile, or even more so — Fish Tank is not drawn from the case files, and does not solicit pity. Rather, thanks to Ms. Arnold’s fine-grained realism and the astonishing performance of Katie Jarvis, the nonprofessional actress who plays Mia, it is a diamond-hard reflection on the peril and progress of a fragile soul in a bad situation.
A trained actor might have taken care to sort out and communicate Mia’s emotions, giving the audience a clear perspective on the girl’s inner life. Instead, Ms. Jarvis’s tentative, sometimes opaque self-presentation registers the crucial fact about Mia, which is her confusion. She is a puzzle to herself, unable to understand, much less control, her fury, her desire or her fear. When she dances alone in an empty apartment, she is not exactly at peace, but at least in a state of cease-fire in her ongoing war with herself and everything else.
Although she prefers to be alone, Mia craves connection. She develops a tentative friendship with one of the young men who keep that poor half-metaphorical horse, and a far more complicated relationship with Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend. Mom, slightly less miserable and abusive when drunk — and therefore, perhaps luckily for Mia, rarely sober — has brought home a bit of decency as well as fun. Or so it appears. Connor is friendly, generous and easy in the company of Mia and Sophie, her prickly, foulmouthed little sister.
He takes the family fishing — his car is among his many attractive assets — and lends Mia his video camera so she can record a dance routine for an audition. More unsettling implications gather slowly, and arise partly out of the welter of Mia’s feelings about Connor. She sees him as a big brother, a father figure and an easy-going pal, but she also has a crush on him. As it intensifies, so does our unease about Connor’s response. Like Mia, the audience trusts him at first because we have no other choice, but we come to suspect a predatory, deceiving side to his character long before she does. How could she? She’s 15.
Fish Tank, insofar as it concerns the relationship between a restless teenage girl and an unreliable older man, bears some resemblance to An Education, Lone Scherfig’s much-praised recent movie. That film wraps its sexual queasiness in period glamour, fetishizing early-’60s clothes, cigarettes and cultural references as ardently as its young heroine. Ms. Arnold is no less absorbed in the details of her film’s setting — the graffiti in the corridors, the litter on the sidewalks, the trash on television — and her harsh brand of realism is no less a style than Ms. Scherfig’s wry worldliness. We find ourselves, in Fish Tank, in a world made familiar by the films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and other socially conscious anatomists of British misery.
It’s a place I’m usually (perhaps perversely) happy to visit, and to locate Ms. Arnold’s work in a recognizable tradition is not to slight her particular and considerable strengths as a filmmaker. Her first feature, Red Road, was a tour de force of psychological insight slightly undermined by a script that relied a bit too much on late reversals and surprises. Fish Tank goes a little astray toward the end, in a scene of breathless pursuit across a marshy seaside wasteland. (To say more would give too much away.) The sequence is powerful and skillfully filmed, but the dread and horror it injects into the story seem superfluously melodramatic.
Otherwise, Fish Tank is nearly flawless. Mr. Fassbender, who was the Irish militant Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the suave British film critic in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, is quickly establishing himself as an actor of impressive range and skill. The slightest imprecision in his portrayal of Connor — too much overt menace, or too little — would have thrown the film off balance. (It may have helped that Ms. Arnold gave the script to her cast one scene at a time, so that they did not know what was coming next.) And Ms. Wareing, who appeared in Mr. Loach’s It’s a Free World, keeps her woebegone character just this side of caricature.
But the movie is Mia’s, whose life is too much for her to handle but who must learn to manage it anyway. Whether she will succeed is a big question, of course, but Ms. Jarvis’s triumph, and Ms. Arnold’s, are hardly in doubt.
Review courtesy of The New York Times