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Review: Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold's unsentimental education
By PETER KEOUGH  |  April 21, 2010
3.5 3.5 Stars

 

Fish Tank | Written and Directed by Andrea Arnold | with Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, and Harry Treadaway | IFC Films | 112 minutes
Scottish director Andrea Arnold rushes in where most other directors — male ones, especially — fear to tread. Her debut feature, the brilliant Red Road, has a female protagonist who, in pursuit of vengeance, sleeps with the man who committed a terrible crime against her family. And she enjoys it. In Fish Tank, Arnold's heroine is a 15-year-old Essex girl who has a crush on her mother's 30ish boyfriend. With terror and delight, the girl ponders crossing the line from disdain to desire.

The consequences of such transgression don't turn out to be so much fun. But Arnold is not passing judgment. Neither is she letting anyone off the hook. Good and evil, love and hate, victim and violator, innocence and experience all merge. No one escapes untainted, but thanks to Arnold's lucid, edgy, detached naturalistic style, no one watching can escape feeling both empathy and uneasiness.

Perhaps more credit should be given to the raw, irrepressible, utterly authentic performance by novice actor Katie Jarvis as Mia, a barely adolescent hoyden who takes control of the movie from the start. The camera follows in her wake as she storms from her dismal estate-housing apartment (the "fish tank" of the title, just as Red Road is the name of the housing project that is that film's setting) to hunt down and badmouth a tarty ex-friend and her new coterie. The confrontation ends in a flurry of foul language and a head butt.

Next, Mia races through the derelict post-industrial landscape and heads for a vacant lot, where a skeletal gray horse appears like a harbinger from another world. Her attempt to break the chain tethering the animal to a chunk of cement fails, but she will keep coming back to try and set it free, again and again.

With the horse, Arnold might be getting a little too metaphorical. More down-to-earth is Mia's attraction to Connor (Michael Fassbender), the hunky new boyfriend of her boozing, hard-partying mom (a fierce Kierston Wareing). Even Mia's urchin-like little sister, Tyler, is stirred up — played with feral charm by Rebecca Griffiths, Tyler could be the subject of her own movie.

This movie, however, is Mia's, and her gaze takes in the shirtless Connor's buff torso. His paternal façade doesn't quite hide a couple of meaningful glances. He supports Mia's ambition to be a dancer, and he turns her on to his favorite song, Bobby Womack's version of "California Dreaming." Mia's own façade of tough-cookie indifference softens into a girlish need for affection and approval, and then into a breathless recognition of adult carnality.

What follows might be compared to Lone Scherfig's An Education, only 50 years later and several rungs down the class ladder. There's no retro glow of '60s nostalgia, no trappings of bourgeois decorum. Instead, Arnold offers up the drab down-and-out dissolution of today's non-working class and an in-your-face immersion into Mia's frenetic, vulnerable, undaunted point of view.

Mia makes mistakes; she's pigheaded and at times downright perverse. Near the end, she gives you a sense of what Tilda Swinton's title character in Julia might have been like in her younger days. But she won't be a victim, and she won't let anyone turn her into one, either.

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