A raw, grimy but lyrical British drama about the pains of adolescence and life at the margins, with a fantastic supporting turn by Michael Fassbender earlier in his career.
Grounded in the tradition of the British kitchen sink realism, Fish Tank follows Mia (Katie Jarvis in a mesmerising debut), an angry and lonely fifteen-year-old living in a nondescript public housing estate on the edge of the countryside. Mia is all boiling frustration and sharp angles; she’s been kicked out of school and as the movie opens she’s just quarrelled with her only friend and head-butted another teenage girl. At home she communicates with her boozy mother and foul-mouthed younger sister with a series of door slams and shouted expletives. Her only real interest in life seems to be urban dancing, which she practices by herself in an empty room.
Mia’s listless life is miraculously disrupted when her mother gets a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Mia gets her first look at Connor when he casually turns up in their kitchen one morning, bare-chested in a pair of low-slung jeans, and from the way the camera fixes on his body it’s clear that Mia is hooked. But there’s more than just sexual interest in the mix. Connor is relaxed and affable, with a steady job; he treats their family to a car trip and seems to be the only adult around to take a genuine interest in Mia’s life, acting as a quasi-father figure. Many of his later films made a great use of Fassbender’s trademark glowering intensity, but it’s also refreshing to see him in a different role where he’s playing an ordinary chilled out guy. In other respects, Connor’s hidden dimensions that come into play later in the film put him squarely among the other damaged, devious and deviant characters in Fassbender’s cinematic resume.
Fish Tank however is Katie Jarvis’ film. The camera never leaves Mia’s perspective and her fluctuating moods, making it easy for the viewer to stay with Mia even when she’s at her most abrasive. The world Mia inhabits is mostly squalid and ugly, but director Andrea Arnold and her cinematographer find beauty in the natural surrounds and occasional moody and striking urban shots. Though it’s not the focus of the movie and there’s no Billy Elliot-style heartwarming resolution, the notion of dance as self-expression, release and communication is very much there. Stark and unsentimental, the film often makes you wince, but ultimately ends on an optimistic note and a sense that something shifted for its heroine.