I don't beg often, but if you are reading this and you haven't seen this movie, please do so. Not only is it a great movie, it's the kind of movie that needs to be made so much more often. When I say that, I don't just mean films made by women, about women, about teenagers, about poverty, about little-seen worlds. I don't just mean intelligent movies, beautiful movies, quiet movies, personal movies. I mean all of these things, but most of all I mean movies that mean something, that can not only affect you, but have already affected their creators. Movies that people care about, beyond the bottom line or how much you are able to waste time being entertained. I mean movies that emerge from love and are loved. Please see Fish Tank. Let it grab you.
Fish Tank tells the story of a teenaged girl named Mia growing up in the British projects (they call them estates there, apparently without any initial irony). With no friends and a checked out mother, Mia wanders through her decaying neighborhood searching for a way to let out her frustration. She has been forced to build up her defenses by her surroundings. The arrival of a new boyfriend for her mother ushers in a new phase in her life, however, when he begins to take interest in Mia and her sister. He treats them well (even acknowledging their existence is a step up from Mia's mother) and seems genuinely engaged with the family. Needless to say, this all does not end well.
Andrea Arnold's second feature-length film has already received many of the expected comparisons to similar British films. The most notable is, of course, Ken Loach's Kes, which serves as a great-granddaddy to all coming of age films set in working class Britain. The film might also be compared to the more obvious crowd-pleaser Billy Elliot, which also featured a young aspiring dancer (only we can clearly see that Mia is no good as a dancer). Personally, I like the comparison to one of the great films of the last decade, Ratcatcher. Also made by a woman and set in a similarly dilapidated Scottish project, that earlier film was perhaps more poetic and lyrical than the gritty and straightforward (though beautifully shot) Fish Tank. But both films manage to make their settings come alive and interact with their protagonists in ways that are both moving and illuminating. Mia's encounters with the horse are probably the best example in this film of the kind of surreal touches that are interwoven with harsh depictions of the reality of poverty in 1970s Scotland so tightly in Ratcatcher. But Fish Tank's larger moments never feel like anything but a natural extension of Mia's inner turmoil, and the film manages to stay unfailingly authentic and vividly personal.
Some movies are only relevant because of a central performance or two, an exercise in technique that is often less fun to watch than it is to create. Fish Tank is not a performance film, but it depends entirely on Katie Jarvis's performance as Mia. Discovered in a train station yelling at her boyfriend (which reviewers seem legally required to mention), the actress gives such a nuanced, compelling performance that it would be easy to think she isn't acting at all. Her scenes with the intimidatingly brilliant Michael Fassbender (who will be an international star in about ten seconds) are so alive that it's difficult to watch. In these moments, the film is almost a suspense thriller, the viewer reduced to screaming "don't open that door!" as the killer lurks in the shadows, ready to dismantle his prey.
It would be easy to write Fassbender's character off as a rapist or pedophile. He certainly takes advantage of a situation that he, as an adult and a man, has a moral (and of course legal) obligation to extricate himself from, though everyone who sees the film will immediately feel a sense of impending danger between the two early in the film; his character was never meant to be strong or good-hearted. I believe he is weak more than he is evil (or is evil just a simplistic portrayal of the weak?), but what interests me more is what Mia will take from her experience, because that is what I think interests the film. Arnold gives her film's final moments an intense ambiguity; the scene of Mia, her mother, and her sister dancing to Nas's "Life's a Bitch" (a song on which I have spent thousands of words) is a powerful one not because it unites the family towards a brave new cohesion but because dissolution is near, and dancing isn't just celebration but momentary rest from struggle. As she leaves for her new life in Wales, the tone is one of renewal rather than defeat, but it is hardly joyful. Fish Tank's final moments are of life, messy and determined. Mia begins again.