Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold’s striking second feature Fish Tank continues the English director’s exploration of female desire (established in her debut Red Road) by painstakingly dissecting the obsession that develops between a teenage tearaway and her mother’s new boyfriend over the course of a few weeks in an overcast summer. Like Red Road, Fish Tank is at once a woman’s fantasy, a grim kitchen-sink drama and an unguarded snapshot of a decaying society writ large through the actions of its characters.

Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) is a tough, wiry fifteen-year old who lives on a sink estate outside an unnamed city. Alienated from her friends because of her unpredictable temper – the story opens with her delivering a head-butt to one of her tormentors – Mia has an unhappy home life, constantly fighting with her coarse, peroxide-blonde mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and delightfully bratty little sister (Rebecca Griffiths). As a way of escaping her troubles, Mia dances; alone in an abandoned flat, with her earphones on and nobody watching.

When she sees a flyer looking for new dancers, Mia prepares an audition tape that she hopes will get her out of the estate for good. In the meantime, she finds herself intrigued by Joanne’s new boyfriend, Irish security guard Connor (Michael Fassbender), who is new and funny and not constantly shouting abuse at her. Is she attracted to him, or just looking for a father figure? The clue to that perhaps lies in Mia’s ongoing attempts to free a white horse from a nearby traveller camp, owned by Kyle (Harry Treadaway).

It’s an indelicate metaphor for burgeoning sexuality, notable only for of it’s incongruity in what otherwise a fiercely naturalistic look at a teenager’s life in modern Britain. Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan keep the film grounded in a rough, granular realism, attempting to describe a world that few people witness up close with as much cinematic truth as is possible. Almost the entire story is told from Mia’s point of view, the camera constantly tracking her through cramped rooms and along thin corridors, the horizon offering nothing but other buildings, ringed with scrub grass. The close-quartered sound design adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, emphasising ambient sounds, snatches of music and breathing.

In her first professional acting job, Katie Jarvis is a revelation. Mia is a complex, unpredictable character, prone to anger and violence, but Jarvis somehow makes all her turmoil honest and delicate. Mia’s journey takes her to some dark and frightening places, particularly in the intensely unnerving closing section, but Jarvis matches the action beat for beat, showing glimpses of vulnerability under her clenched façade. Around her, the ensemble performances are excellent; Wareing instantly dislikeable as the self-serving mother, good-time artist Fassbender alternating between smouldering sexuality and affable parental concern, the eleven-year old Griffiths providing moments of disarmingly foul-mouthed comedy.

Dark, brittle and wildly unpredictable, Fish Tank is a sharply observed, painstakingly naturalistic account of chaotic lives lived in hope of something better.

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