Confrontational, acutely claustrophobic, and implacably gritty, Fish Tank is an incisive female coming-of-age story set against a dreary backdrop of poverty, abuse, and neglect – the grim suburban housing developments on the outer fringes of London – with a tremendous breakout lead performance. It’s a stalwart new entry in the long-standing British tradition of disquieting social realism, with a narrative of audacity and ambiguity.
What interests writer-director Andrea Arnold (Red Road) is straightforward: ordinary people’s lives poised between transformation and despair; dire landscapes of middle-class contemporary existence; dirty, dangerous, and exceptionally hot sex. Arnold’s work deserves comparison to, and echoes, the British kitchen-sink dramas of Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies), Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher), and Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley). Arnold’s combination of dense slang and hand-held camerawork, along with her steadfast refusal to sentimentalize her characters or deliver a digestible moral message, makes Fish Tank a steep and gratifying climb.
First-timer Katie Jarvis burns up the screen as Mia Williams. She’s a disaffected teenager, spiky and fearless, with a feisty forcefulness and an awkward tenderness that’s impossible to resist. Jarvis was discovered at the Tilbury Town railway station while arguing with her boyfriend. She has such natural aptitude, such keen intuition, that it inspires jealousy. The 17-year-old infuses the entire film with the sort of kinetic spirit that heralds a new talent. She so completely captures the innocence, cynicism, and rage of a child of hardship and divorce on the edge of adulthood that it feels as if we’re spying, intruding on her privacy. That gnawing gulp is a twinge of guilty voyeurism, of impolite interference, as if we’re reading a stranger’s journal.
Arnold has an ecumenical appreciation for both male and female hotness: we see lascivious servings of the curvaceous Kierston Wareing (It’s a Free World…), as the slutty boozehound mom, in her underwear; and plenty of the shirtless Michael Fassbender (Hunger) slinking around in low-slung jeans. Fassbender’s Connor is likable and sinister. His avuncular interest in Mia is genuine, at first, and innocent enough given the context of the alcohol- and estrogen-infused apartment that Mia shares with her mom and younger sister. But she keeps pushing, finding opportunities to touch him, picking fights, making up, mouthing off, staring at him with unbridled teenage lust.
It’s an archetypal story, one told in different social settings by Thomas Hardy and Henry James – the seduction and disillusionment of a young girl. But while the filmmaking world is awash with low-budget hyperrealism these days, few directors at any level have Arnold’s gift for mounting suspense and powerful emotion, or her flair for thrilling, immediate images.
If the final result between Connor and Mia is predictable, it is also tragically recognizable. Human sexuality is an explosive device that doesn’t defuse easily, and when it goes off, its ripple effects can be positive, harmful, surprising, and devastating. Arnold is also disturbingly frank about the fact that illicit or forbidden sex is often the most arousing, regardless of how we may feel about it seconds or hours later.
Principally, Fish Tank is about Mia alone, one of the truly memorable, deeply flawed movie heroines of recent years, as she wanders across this exurban wasteland in her pose of aggrieved nobility, head-butting rival girls on the playground or futilely struggling to free a half-starved horse tethered in a junkyard. Arnold keeps the screen filled to bursting with the contradictions of adolescence and the raw terror of life. With a bare minimum of dialogue and a debut role of bracingly authentic revelation, Arnold and Jarvis convey the hope and fury that war beneath the surface of Mia’s skin.
Arnold believes in the possibility of deliverance, even in a life apparently as closed-down and barren as Mia’s. Although moments of reconciliation and female solidarity are fleeting, none of these characters, trapped as they are by economics and psychology, is doomed to do tomorrow what they did today.
Dispensing two hours of ache – we’re rocked by the many ways that Arnold and Jarvis rend us to and fro – Fish Tank is commensurate with such child-in-trouble classics as The 400 Blows. Arnold and Jarvis fly on their unerring instincts, and after this feature, both women’s prospects seem limitless. Fish Tank is a remarkable downer-upper paradox: a bruising tale of teenage resilience, plain-speaking and emotionally complicated and alive.