Released in 20o9 (and appearing in American theaters in 2010), the British film Fish Tank is another one of those films that I love but occasionally have trouble watching. Much like Thirteen, it’s a film that, in some ways, hits pretty close to home for me. Though the film might be about a 15 year-old English girl living in a London council estate and I’m a Texas girl who grew up all over the Southwest, there’s a lot about Fish Tank to which I related.
The film tells the story of 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis). Mia lives in a tiny flat with her mother (Kierston Wareing), who appears to be only a few years older than her daughter, and her younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths). She has recently been kicked out of school and is facing an undeniably bleak future. She spends her time wandering around the estates, an oppressive atmosphere of concrete, poverty, and hostility. When we first meet Mia, she is arguing with another girl over a dance routine. The argument quickly turns violent and, as the film makes clear, that violence isn’t particularly shocking. Mia is an angry girl, one who cannot relate to her family or her surroundings without striking out. That’s what you do when you don’t have a future to look forward to. You strike out at the present.
In fact, the only time that Mia is happy is when she’s dancing. She breaks into deserted apartments so she can practice her routine and have a few moments of freedom. And it’s not so much that Mia is a great dancer or that she’s had any training. (In fact, actress Katie Jarvis was reportedly not comfortable with having to dance on camera.) Instead, there’s a raw power to the way that Mia dances. It’s the only non-destructive way that she has to get out her anger and to express herself. It’s the only way that she has to let the world know that she’s special and, when she’s dancing, she’s in control of the future.
Things briefly look better when Mia’s mother starts to date the handsome Connor O’Reilly (Michael Fassbender). At first, Connor seems almost perfect. Along with bringing some momentary peace to the household, Connor is one of the few characters in the film to show anything resembling kindness to Mia. Connor encourages her to go to an audition. Connor takes the entire family out to the countryside, giving Mia a break from the oppressive atmosphere of the estates. When Mia wades out into a pond and cuts her foot, Connor is the one who bandages it. Connor seems to be perfect. Of course, it helps that he’s played by a pre-12 Years A Slave Michael Fassbender.
But, of course, Connor isn’t perfect.
About halfway through the film, Fish Tank takes a disturbing turn and things proceed to get even more disturbing from there. And I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen Fish Tank.
(I will however say that, much as Juno made it difficult for me to ever truly trust Jason Bateman, Fish Tank had the same effect as far as Michael Fassbender is concerned.)
Directed by Andrea Arnold in a semi-documentary style, Fish Tank works mostly because of the performance of Katie Jarvis. This was her film debut and she was apparently asked to audition after a production assistant saw her having a loud argument with her boyfriend at a train station. To a certain extent, you could argue that she’s largely playing herself but I think that does a disservice to both Katie Jarvis as an actress and the film itself. It’s a great performance, one of the best acting debuts in the history of film.
Earlier, I compared Fish Tank to Thirteen, both in its portrayal of an angry teenager and the fact that I could not help but relate to both film’s lead characters. Also like Thirteen, Fish Tank ends on a deeply ambiguous note. I’ll just say that I hope things work out well for Mia and, despite all of her troubles, I think they will. If Mia can survive, then there is hope for us all.