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Fish Tank

Mia strides purposefully around her Essex housing estate and fairly bleak environs. The problem is that she’s desperately short on purpose. In the first few minutes of Fish Tank, the film’s heroine stalks about in a grey hooded track suit over a black sleeveless t-shirt, something of a second skin. She summons a neighbor girl by throwing rocks her window and then leaves an expletive of a calling card with the girl’s father. She confronts a group of hostile girls and head-butts one of them with force enough to draw blood. Finally, walking along a motorway, she notices a woebegone old white horse tethered in a vacant-seeming lot, which she tries to free by pounding a rock on its lock and chain.

Those last two acts are alike in their futility and defiance. They tell us more than a little about Mia, who will clearly push back when provoked and longs to feel for or believe in something, much as the unlikely objects of her affection tend to disappoint her.

Mia’s main source of disappointment will come from her mother’s boyfriend, Connor. Connor (Michael Fassbender, so memorable in 2009’s Bobby Sands story, Hunger), a lean, handsome stranger, just appears one morning, coming downstairs shirtless from Mia’s mother’s bedroom. Connor distinguishes himself initially by merely noticing Mia, regarding her with a combination of warmth and intelligence that manages to penetrate her formidable defenses. The relationship is complex from the start, although it appears that Mia desperately wants and needs a father figure more than anything else. Conner seems to bring a welcome humanity to Mia’s world, but he’s also attracted to her from the first moment he sees her dancing suggestively in the kitchen.

Apparently, Katie Jarvis was discovered on a train platform arguing with her boyfriend. One can well imagine. Her Mia is all limbs wind-milling out of a skinny torso, high, defiant cheek bones beneath squinting, wary eyes, dark hair most often pulled back into a pony tail, stray parts at the front thrown to the side or falling into the face in spikes. To have her hair down, where she’s told that it makes her look pretty, seems a sign of vulnerability that she is not frequently willing to offer.

But both the character and the actress, seamlessly one, do have their moments of vulnerability. Whoever spotted Ms. Jarvis on that train platform has a good eye for talent. One would expect a newcomer to bluff her way through such a first-time role, using bravado to fill in the blanks where a lack of talent or training might fail her. But Katie Jarvis doesn’t seem to miss a note, and she’s rarely beyond the shadowing camera’s scrutiny.

In her writing and direction, Andrea Arnold is obviously sympathetic and deeply interested in Mia. Arnold allows us to get close enough to see more than Mia's profane, defensive bluster. She gets so close in fact that Mia's breathing is at key moments the predominant sound we hear. This is true in the first seconds of the film when went Mia is initially bent over, then straightens, looks out the picture window of a largely empty room, breathing hard. We'll later realize she's been dancing. It's also true on two occasions when Mia is carried by Conner, once to her own bed from her mother's room, the second time when she has cut her foot wading into a pond, after which Connor gives her a piggyback ride back to his car. There’s a dreamy ambiguity to both scenes. Mia is between sleep and wakefulness on the first occasion, perhaps wavering between a longing for warmth and security and the first stirrings of sexual desire in both.

When I saw the trailer for Fish Tank, I was afraid I was in store for some earnest social realism in which the director would use her feisty heroine as a billboard on which to display her admirable concern for the downtrodden. But Arnold captures the milieu without overstating it. This is, after all a place where residents in their flats are as likely to hear a “Fuck You” wafting through their windows as birdsong or the chirp of insects. But as criminally negligent as Mia’s mother appears, much as there is emotional squalor here, Arnold avoids the trap of fetishizing the more unseemly aspects of this generally dead-end stratum of English society.

Only once, toward the film’s conclusion does Arnold’s storytelling judgment seem to fail her. The morning after their sexual encounter, Connor abruptly leaves Mia’s mother and their flat as if fleeing the scene of a crime (which is essentially the case). Still stunned, Mia tracks him to his home and his relatively idyllic suburban existence, complete with freestanding house, wife and lovely fair-haired child. Mia breaks into the family’s home while they’re away, drinks a beer, is dismayed to see images of familial happiness on the same video recorder that Connor had loaned her to record an entry for a dance contest, and responds with a typically impetuous and defiant gesture: she urinates on the family's living room rug.

By then, both Mia and the Arnold have made their point. But Mia lingers until the family returns. She ultimately absconds with Connor's daughter and nearly gets her drowned as she drags her around the nearby countryside. It's difficult to watch and not really necessary. It's about the only time that Arnold allows melodrama to sneak into the story.

A final bit of dance demonstrates director Arnold’s own courage of vulnerability. With bags packed, Mia comes downstairs to say goodbye to her mother and sister, Tyler. Her mother (Kierston Wareing) who's dancing, and as always, seems to regard her children as reminders of her own fading youth, says something like, “Alright, fuck off then.” She continues to writhe to the pulsating music, trying to be as oblivious to Mia (and any tenderness she might be feeling) as possible. But instead of walking out, Mia joins in the dance, as does her sister behind her. The three women of the family have found a language and ritual in which they feel safe to occupy the same space without striking out at each other. It’s a scene that could have easily gone over the top, but the three actresses keep it real and Arnold’s prudent sense of economy cuts the scene mid-dance, without any easy sense of resolution.

Fish Tank makes an interesting companion piece to An Education, which both preceded Andrea Arnold’s film to America and has gotten the lion’s share of attention, including three Academy Award nominations. In both cases, charismatic, handsome older men appear on the scene to offer the young heroines a way out of the stifling predictability of their lives. To the credit of both stories, the men in each tale behave in a manner that is all too consistent with older men seeking a turn back the clock escape with younger women.

After An Education’s tidy, late-film montage, with hard lessons learned, Jenny is off to Oxford (to be fair, that film is based on a true story). That’s not exactly an option for Mia. After the dance with her mother, an exchange of ironic “I hate you's” and a rare unironic embrace with little Tyler, she’s off to Wales with the boy who probably saved her from being raped during one of her foolhardy attempts to free the white horse. We don’t know if she’s going off to live in a better place, perhaps starting a new life, or just enjoying a brief escape. You hope for more for this yearning, vibrant girl, but a little escape might be as good as it gets.



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