Directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway, Sydney Mary Nash. (2009, NR, 123 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 5, 2010
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.