Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Written by: Andrea Arnold (screenplay)
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Harry Treadaway, and Kierston Wareing
Beginning with a head-on view of its protagonist surrounded by the blue walls of an abandoned apartment, Fish Tank explains its title almost right off the bat. Mia, the 15-year-old girl occupying that frame, takes a little bit longer to get to know, though.
Director Andrea Arnold laces this confrontational tale of emerging adulthood and sexuality with vulgar language and despicable acts; more importantly, though, she fills it to the brim with sympathy. Though Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives in the slums of Essex with her abusive mother and equally vulgar sister, she’ll be the first to tell you she’s not a victim. In the first ten minutes, she headbutts a girl just for having the nerve to argue back at her and she attempts to free an imprisoned horse from a band of gypsies.
Underneath that gruff exterior, as is the case with many hardened movie characters (though they’re usually men), is a lonely soul yearning for some kind of escape. Arnold pokes fun at those movies where the characters can escape through artistic talent. You can see that Mia isn’t good at dancing. Her escape will have to be clawing through dirt, if at all.
Jarvis is extraordinary in the lead role, showing the tiny specks of emotion entirely through Mia’s actions. We watch her journey from her perspective, but without any narration to get us inside. Tracking shots are key to Fish Tank’s expressive power. There are several shots of her surroundings that she obstructs. She is deliberately enlarged in these shots to keep the audience focused on what crazy thing she might do next.
Fish Tank recalls the little-seen Julia from 2008 starring Tilda Swinton. The main character’s self-destructive tendencies are often off-putting, but we’ll follow her to the bitter end and even root for her. It’s also easy to see elements of Precious here as well, especially when the mom’s boyfriend, played by the impeccable Michael Fassbender, starts playing love games with Mia as well.
Make no mistake, though, this movie creates its own cinematic world. Some of it may not feel as real as the rest of it, like Mia’s half-hearted attempts to find normalcy with someone her own age (the nerve!), but Arnold has created a potent feminist drama that cannot be excused because of its protagonists sexuality or attractiveness. Mia is pretty, but there’s a reason she wears almost nothing but baggy sweats the entire movie.
Though much of Fish Tank is its realistic environment, the many artistic flourishes in the scenery help tremendously. The heightened sense of color in many of the interiors go well with the lush nature settings, especially the aquatic ones. Water environments host the movie’s most charming scene, where Mia wades out with faux-dad Connor (Fassbender) to catch fish, and its most terrifying, which I won’t spoil.
The lived in world of working-class England is the perfect setting for this girl who does not really know how to live in any sort of world. Coming-of-age stories are often packaged with sentimentality, and gravitate from the extreme evil in life to the uplifting good by the end. Fish Tank walks a finer line, creating a realistic world where dreams don’t just happen because a screenwriter says so. Mia lives in an artistically rendered creation that doesn’t feel thought-up at all. This is her little world, and if you tap on the glass there will be hell to pay.