The first words we hear out of 15-year-old Mia (Jarvis) are, characteristically, four-lettered and snarling. “Ring me back, you bitch,” she spits into her phone, ostensibly to a friend. We never see the friend – we never see any
friends, in fact. Mia, a self-taught dancer who likes to watch Web videos of dance crews showing off their moves, has no crew of her own. And, frankly, I wouldn't want to be in her crew, either – she's too pathological for our uncomplicated empathy. In Fish Tank
’s opening shot, writer/director Arnold fixes her camera on Mia head-on, as she’s alone, unguarded, and heaving from the exertion of dancing. But moments later, the camera reorients itself to what will prove to be its more natural position: behind Mia, ever trailing her, catching her from the side as she hurls herself headlong into scenarios fraught with danger. She lives, all-claws-out, with her mother, Joanne, (Wareing) and little sister, Tyler (Griffiths), in a crowded Essex council estate; if Joanne has an occupation beyond drinking and smoking and swaying to music videos on the always-turned-on TV, it’s unclear. One day Mia wakes up to find a half-dressed man making tea in the kitchen: He’s Connor (Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend. He has an Irish accent, a sensible Honda hatchback, Bobby Womack CDs, and kindness to spare; he alone encourages Mia in her dancing. Because the audience is worldly enough, or at least attuned to the hard fact that good-looking men in movies taking an interest in underage girls usually spells trouble, Connor's deepening involvement in the family is uneasy-making. But hold on: Arnold is out for something far subtler than that. It’s been well-reported that she only gave her actors a few pages at a time during shooting – none of them knew where their story arcs were headed. That gambit gives the film an on-the-edge-of-a-knife kind of tension, as does Jarvis' tightly coiled unpredictability. A first-time actor and Essex native, Jarvis authentically embodies that prickly age between little-girl bric-a-brac (which Arnold's camera skims; not a shot here feels superfluous) and the hoop earrings and hipped swagger of an almost-grown woman. Fassbender is the far more tested actor – in two years' time he's swung from Hunger
's starved artistry to Inglourious Basterds
' stiff upper lip – and his ease in front of the camera mimics the onscreen push-pull between Connor's assuredness and Mia's uncertainty. Arnold may use uncommon tactics, but she knows what she's doing. (And she has a hell of a track record: Fish Tank
took the Jury Prize at Cannes, as did her first feature, 2006's Red Road
.) Fish Tank
isn't an easy watch – it's like two hours of ache – but there are rich rewards to be had in the many ways Arnold and her terrific team rend us to and fro.