A film review by Craig J. Koban June 22, 2010

Rank:  #5


2010, no MPAA rating (intended for adults), 123 mins.


Mia: Katie Jarvis / Connor: Michael Fassbender / Joanne: Kierston Wareing / Tyler: Rebecca Griffiths / Billy: Harry Treadaway

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK is one of the most stunningly focused and bleak coming-of-age dramas that I’ve seen.  The film is astounding for its minimalist power: shot with a loose, improvisational spirit, an intricate attention to urban environmental details, and a genuine sense of intensity with its characters and performances, FISH TANK takes a hard look at genre conventions and clichés and brazenly slaps them all down.  

On the surface, the film could be taken a prosaic melodrama, but what Arnold has done with familiar material is revelatory.  She creates such an uncomfortable sensation of realism and urgency with her portrait of an inarticulate, perpetually angry, and fiercely anti-social teenager, so much so that the more the film progresses, the less aware we are that we are watching a drama.  Instead, the film makes the audience members feel like eavesdropping voyeurs, and it is that astounding level of gritty verisimilitude that triumphantly segregates it from the other similar efforts. 

The film is unrelentingly dark and pessimistic: it offers an unflinchingly fly-on-the wall portrait of one highly dysfunctional British family and – more acutely – one disaffected youth, and it does so without the obligatory sermonizing or lame sentimentality.  I have often complained about dramas that feel like their screenplays have been sanitized by massive dosages of Lysol being sprayed all over them: they attempt to either overly romanticizes their respective characters or they make attempts to meditate on them by laboriously explaining what makes them tick.  Arnold does the exact opposite, which is ultimately what makes her film so calculatingly honest and profound.  She quickly introduces us to her irreproachably hostile and pessimistic teen rebel and then proceeds to show the entire film through her eyes.  We see how she interacts with people, how she speaks to them, how she responds to them, and how she perceives them.  No attempt whatsoever is made by Arnold to justify, rationalize, or apologize for this character.  What we get is a harrowing, intimate, and frequently chilling portrait of adolescent aggression, fury, and frustration.   The film’s title is symbolic of its aesthetic choices: we look at this pathetic creature as spectators, seeing her at her most redundant, but experiencing her at her most mundane is what makes FISH TANK so emotionally alive and authentic.   

For Mia (Katie Jarvis), her teen years are an unyielding prison of aggravation.  She is a perpetually potty-mouthed 15-year-old Essex girl that lives in one of the more dilapidated housing projects in the U.K.  Her home life is depressingly austere:  her mother (Kierston Wareing) is a slutty, booze-binging, and uncaring piece of Euro trash that has no business being a maternal figure.  Mia’s kid sister (Rebecca Griffiths) is also an aggressively unfriendly figure in the household (she throws out c-bombs at her mother and sister with a shocking nonchalance that would easily make KICK-ASS’ Hit-Girl blush).  Outside of Mia's inescapably bitter home is life on the street and her attempts to socialize and make friends are abysmal failures.  Early on in the film she lambastes a group of female street dancers so badly that it results in her vengefully head-butting one in the face, drawing blood.  With a family unit that is toxic, a social life that is a loner-fuelled void, and a school life that is not even on the radar, Mia retreats into solitude and drinking. 

She does have only one outlet that appears to be a calming influence on her: she loves hip-hop street dancing, and when she is not engaging in caustic verbal tirades with her family and strangers, she escapes into an abandoned flat, plays CDs on a portable player, and practices her moves so that she could perhaps leave her life of misery and poverty once and for all.  She is neither a prodigy nor untalented, but what she does have is a genuine desire to do well at something, which, considering her situation, is a good proposition.  She sees a local flyer advertising for dancers and she immediately puts that on her radar. 

Things get complicated for Mia in initially promising, but ultimately unsettling ways with the appearance of her mother’s new boyfriend, a hardware store security card named Connor (Michael Fassbender).  His sudden appearance in her family is exciting at first, if not a bit disquieting.  At first, Connor seems like a positive beacon of change for both Mia and her mother: he is handsome, kind of devilishly charming, and has a childlike whimsy and freewheeling spirit about him.  Outwardly, Connor comes off as a suitable paternal figure for Mia’s unraveling family circle, and the film sort of relishes in showing him off as a calm, respectable, and well mannered authority and surrogate father/husband figure that just may be the answer for Mia and her mother.  Unfortunately, a subtle, but obvious, sexual tension begins to form between Mia and Connor.  Mia witnesses him at his most intimate with her mother, which makes her deliriously jealous, but the more she attempts to open herself up to this stranger, the more Connor reciprocates similar feelings and ventures to personal areas with the girl where he should definitely not go. 

The character of Connor is one of the most fascinatingly complex characters in a film in a long time.  He is also certain to polarize many a filmgoer: the simply criticism of him would be to label him as an unlikable and amoral pedophile.  I don’t think that Arnold’s direction and Fassbender’s intricately layered and resolute performance allows for such one-note denunciations.  At first, Connor is presented as the perfunctory working-class stiff with a heart of gold figure to Mia and he certainly represents – at least at first – a much more positive and nurturing parental figure than Mia’s mother.   After establishing Connor as the “good guy” Arnold and Fassbender lift up the curtain on this man and sort of erode expectations that viewers have for him.   

The way Fassbender – a performer that, after films like HUNGER and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, reveals how he can display unimpeachable dexterity and range as a character actor – shows a complex layer of depth to Connor helps to make him more than a one-dimensional fiend.  His overall temperament strays back and forth between protective and abusive.  Mia wrongly associates Connor as a figure where sex with him equals intimacy and understanding, and she certainly is not an innocent victim when Connor does fornicate with her (she is not raped or physically abused beyond her will, she is consenting).  At the same time, Connor sees this troubled youth and uses her angst and naiveté to foster trust in him, which leads to him luring her in.   He both legitimately cares for Mia, but he does exploit her vulnerabilities, even when they both think that it is not occurring, and Fassbender is deceptively electrifying, quietly unsettling, and wily in his decidedly dicey role.  Weaker performers would have made Connor an instant figure of deplorable mistrust and hate, but Fassbengder knows that Connor is much more multi-dimensional than that. 

Then there is Katie Jarvis, who gives one of the most empowered, heartfelt, honest and powerful first performances of the movies.  Incredibly, Jarvis had no acting experience at all before landing the role: legend has it that Arnold’s casting assistant saw her arguing with her boyfriend in a Tilbury Town railway station and clearly saw potential in her to channel her real world anger into the sullen cauldron of misery that exists within Mia.  I think that it is Jarvis’ own inherent greenhorn status as a performer that allows for her acting in FISH TANK to breathe with so much more legitimacy.  Jarvis is allowed to just inhabit and become the role without the constraints of letting years of habits and distracting method techniques get in the way, and it is also a testament to Arnold’s keen understanding of her character that allows for this eerie transformation.  The people in FISH TANK don’t exist like movie characters that are desperately trying to conform to the trite conventions of a script; instead, they act, talk, and interact like real people, and with Jarvis’ tour de force portrayal of a her rancorously distressed teen, the film feels even more emotionally raw and tangible as a result.  Even though Jarvis plays a wholeheartedly hateful little cretin in the film (she engages in a sickening plot near the conclusion on the film with a little girl that is very difficult to watch), it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Jarvis: she is just a natural and magnetic screen presence. 

The environment is also an important character in the film, which is presented by Arnold as sparsely evocative.  Filmed entirely in one of the worst and seediest parts of Essex county (to the initiated, one of London’s darker suburbs), Arnold creates an overwhelmingly provocative and fully realized sense of both economic depression and unavoidable social oppression.  The drab, dirty, and claustrophobic aura of Mia’s flat and surrounding neighborhood only further embellishes her sense of desolation and hopelessness.  Arnold’s cinéma vérité style – using hand held shots, long takes, and a conservative usage of cuts and edits - allows us to linger on the malevolent details of Mia’s world.  The film grounds you in its repressive universe with such a soul-crushing immediacy.  Arnold, to her credit, is not engaging in poverty porn here: she’s simply a ruthlessly honest documenter of it.   Even when there are odd and surreal moments – like one recurring early image of a white horse chained to the ground in a vacant lot, a symbol of hope – you just know that the urban decay framing it and the characters will be too much to overcome. 

FISH TANK reminded me of two great films from last year: PRECIOUS (another drama about an inner city teen with an abusive and unsympathetic mother that tries to free herself) and AN EDUCATION (another drama about a young, impressionable woman trying to discover who she is while engaging in an inappropriate sexual liaison with a man twice her age).  Yet, in both of those films – despite even PRECIOUS’ far-reaching urban nihilism and personal despair – there was a sense of hope for the future for their confused, isolated and self-doubting teens.  There is none of that in FISH TANK:  Mia leaves the film just as she entered it, and even though she escapes from it in the literal sense in the end, there is no suggestion that her life will improve for the better.  Many viewers may cry a resounding foul, perhaps expecting a tidier and more upbeat denouement for the character.  Arnold, however, has no desire to conciliate apathetic filmgoers that have gorged on diets of annoyingly condescending and manufactured feel good entertainments.  She does not filter or censor Mia’s plight or story.  She shows it for what it actually is, and that’s why few films this year (or any past year for that matter) have the painful and unmistakable realism of FISH TANK. 

  H O M E