Fish Tank (United Kingdom, 2009)

February 09, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fish Tank Poster

Films like Fish Tank work because they are ruthlessly honest. They do not attempt to placate audiences with recycled clichés or endings pilfered from fairy tales . They seek for some truth and, although that truth may not be revolutionary, it is unvarnished. Writer/director Andrea Arnold has narrowed her focus and used simple filming techniques to follow the life and tribulations of a teenage girl wasting her life in a British housing estate. Her mother shows less maturity than she does and her little sister appears to be growing into a monster. The characters feel real. They talk like real people. And, most importantly, they do not seem to be acting to conform to the contortions of a script. Watching Fish Tank is, as the title implies, like gazing through the glass of an aquarium at the lives of those trapped within, whose only chance of escape would seem to be through death and the indignity of being flushed down a toilet.

The story is told through the eyes of 15-year old Mia (Katie Jarvis), who is a hellraiser and loner. She treats her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), with undisguised contempt and regards her younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), as a brat. She spends hours in an abandoned room upstairs practicing amateurish dance routines copied from music videos. She has become obsessed with the idea of freeing a horse from its chain-link tether and persists at this even after being caught. School is non-existent and girls her age are an unpleasant afterthought. One day, her mother brings home Connor (Michael Fassbender), her latest bedmate. Mia is attracted to the older man, primarily because he shows interest in her and doesn't dismiss her as an unwanted nuisance. It may be that Connor has ulterior motives in showing kindness to Mia but, if that's the case, she doesn't notice them (and neither does Joanne). Once the inevitable happens, however, Mia's already unstable life spirals out of control.

In its unflinching portrayal of an angry, disaffected girl, Fish Tank recalls the likes of Thirteen and Girlfight, although without the Hollywood inflections. Arnold's style exhibits similarities to that of Ken Loach, whose films are often set in underprivileged areas and follow atypical protagonists. The approach uses simple techniques - long takes with fewer cuts, numerous hand-held shots, and a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (almost never used for productions with theatrical aspirations). Fish Tank arrives late in the United States, but comes riding the crest of a wave of positive buzz that started in Cannes 2009 (where it won the Jury Prize), continued through many 2009 film festivals, and culminated with a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding British Film.

Lead actress Katie Jarvis provides an eye-opening performance whose ferocity will not be easily forgotten by those who observe it. This is Jarvis' acting debut; she was discovered by Arnold when the director was scouring housing projects in search of a fresh talent. Jarvis' pre-acting life was enough like Mia's to enable her to connect with the character on a primal level. It remains to be seen whether this is a serendipitous occasion of a role being the perfect match for the performer or whether Jarvis has the range to match her passion and move on to a healthy career (she now has agents on both sides of the Atlantic). The supporting cast is equally effective, including Michael Fassbender, who has the biggest "name" among the actors. But this is Jarvis' movie and the compulsion of watching her makes Fish Tank impossible to turn from.

Hollywood adores coming-of-age stories, but rarely does it present them in such frank, uncompromising detail. The movie makes no attempt to romanticize Mia, even though it is told from her perspective. She comes across as petty, hostile, and unprincipled. It's a "warts-and-all" portrayal yet, even as the ugly layers of her character are revealed, we see how easily she is victimized by those around her. Toward the end of the movie, there's a sequence that illustrates how little she considers consequences. She sets up a bad situation and is uncertain how to disentangle herself from it. There's tension in this episode because Mia is so volatile that anything - including the worst - could happen. No scenes in Fish Tank are more telling than these.

Watching Fish Tank sets up viewers as voyeurs. The way in which the film was produced - everything from the acting to the camerawork to the screenplay - encourages this. It enhances the reality of the characters and the immediacy of their circumstances. Sometimes, a slice of real-seeming life can come across as dull or pedestrian when viewed on screen. This is not one of those occasions. Fish Tank is compelling drama and the numerous accolades it has earned during the nine months between its debut and its U.S. release are deserved. It's not comfortable but it is engrossing.

Fish Tank (United Kingdom, 2009)

Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths
Screenplay: Andrea Arnold
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2010-02-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1