Fish Tank (2009)
Fish Tank is a British film written and directed by Andrea Arnold. It follows a recalcitrant fifteen year old girl named Mia who lives with her younger sister and single neglectful mother. When her mom begins seeing a man named Connor, Mia’s life changes as he pays more and more attention to her.
Fish Tank is reminiscent of the angry young man films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s. The subject is a young person who doesn’t conform to society, and it’s filmed in a very realistic style. The style’s as gritty as the subject matter, sometimes slipping out of focus and almost always using handheld shots. Even more faithful to realism, all of the music in the film is diegetic, and it’s all shot outside in an emotionless urban setting. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses the urban locale to his advantage, creating great compositions and beautiful skyline shots.
Another trait that Fish Tank shares with those British films from half a century ago is the use of a first-time actor in the lead role. Katie Jarvis was discovered while arguing with her boyfriend in a subway station. She is so full of energy and emotion; when she yells and argues it’s like she’s spitting fire, but even during those occasions you can see how underneath she’s really a scared, vulnerable young girl.
It would be insulting to say that Jarvis just plays an angsty teenager. Since there’s rarely a shot without her, we are able to see her in every state, and even though her home life is retched, she’s able to find satisfaction while dancing. These private scenes of Mia’s escapes from reality are some of the best in the film. Other instances see Mia lose herself to flights of glee, and near the end of the film she crosses a line that you wouldn’t have expected her to. Jarvis’ performance is what makes it all believable, since she’s able to really capture the essence of what it is to be young and afraid and having to project a tough image to cover it all up.
Connor is played by Michael Fassbender, whose performance is nearly as flawless as Jarvis’. He’s ridiculously charming and genial, and able to play this multifaceted character with appropriate depth and ambiguity. Connor is the only one who pays attention to Mia and makes her feel good. He gives her the moral support and joking around that Mia’s mother is incapable of, and begins to seemingly fill a father role for her.
Still, as the film progresses, you begin to question his true intentions little by little, until it’s clear that Connor sees Mia in a sexual light. Until then, I had a hard time figuring out if he was into her or if he was just a really friendly guy. It was a truly fantastic performance.
With both leads so talented, it’s no surprise that the chemistry between them works wonderfully. Each scene was riddled with sexual suspense. Sometimes it was so much that each inch of movement held the weight of possibility in it. The times they are alone together are times of excellent tension.
Throughout the film, Mia repeatedly visits a white horse tied down outside some trailers. She tries to free it and continuously runs into problems. The scenes are the only ones that may feel out of place, and the fact that they’re operating as a heavy-handed metaphor makes them all the more unnecessary.
Fish Tank is a great film, and it’s unfortunate that it’s not more well-known. It’s certainly a rarity as a quality film released within the first month of the year. Even if the story of a teenage urban dancer doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, Fish Tank is worth checking out. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, come December, I count it amongst the best of the year.
Final rating: 8.5/10
–James A. Janisse