Andrea Arnold's piercing "Fish Tank" is the portrait of an angry, isolated 15-year-old girl who is hurtling toward a lifetime of misery. She is so hurt and lonely, we pity her. Her mother barely even sees her. The film takes place in a bleak British public housing estate, and in the streets and fields around it. There is no suggestion of a place this girl can go to find help, care or encouragement.
The girl is Mia, played by Katie Jarvis in a harrowing display of hostility. She's been thrown out of school, is taunted as a weirdo by boys her age, has no friends, converses with her mother and sister in screams and retreats to an empty room to play her music and dance alone. She drinks what little booze she can get her hands on.
And where is her mother? Right there at home, all the time. Joanne (Kierston Wareing) looks so young, she might have had Mia at Mia's age. Joanne is shorter, busty, dyed blond, a chain-smoker, a party girl. The party is usually in her living room. One day, she brings home Connor (Michael Fassbender), a good-looking guy who seems nice enough. Mia screams at him, too, but it's a way of getting attention.
Joanne seems happiest when Mia isn't at home. The girl wanders the streets and gets in a fight when she tries to free a horse chained in a barren lot near some shabby mobile homes. She surfs in an Internet cafe, goes to an audition for sexy dancers and breaks into a house at random.
One day differs from the routine. Connor takes Mia, her mom and her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) on a drive to the country. This isn't an idyllic picnic; they simply park in a field and hike to a river, Joanne staying with the car. Connor takes Mia wading ("I can't swim") in the river. Walking barefoot, she gets a ride on his back and rests her chin on his shoulder, and what was in the air from the first is now manifest.
Some reviews call Connor a pedophile. I think he's more of an immoral opportunist. "Fish Tank," in any event, isn't so much about sex as about the helpless spiral Mia is going through. The film has two fraught but ambiguous scenes -- one when she goes to Connor's home, another involving a young girl -- that we can make fairly obvious assumptions about. But the movie doesn't spell them out; Arnold sees everything through Mia's eyes and never steps outside to explain things from any other point of view. She knows who the young girl is, and we are left to assume. Whatever she thinks after the visit to Connor's house, we are not specifically told. The film so firmly identifies with Mia that there might even be a possibility Joanne is better than the slutty monster we see. A slim possibility, to be sure.
In a film so tightly focused, all depends on Katie Jarvis' performance. There is truth in it. She lives on an Essex housing estate like the one in the movie, and she was discovered by Arnold while in a shouting match with her boyfriend at the Tilbury train station, which is seen in the movie. Now 18, she gave birth to a daughter conceived when she was 16.
We can fear, but we can't say, that she was heading for a life similar to the one Mia seems doomed to experience. Her casting in this film, however, led to Cannes, the Jury Prize, and contracts with British and American agents. She is a powerful acting presence, flawlessly convincing here. And Arnold, who won an Oscar for her shattering short film "Wasp" (2003), also about a neglectful alcoholic mother, deserves comparison with a British master director like Ken Loach.
In 1962, in his introduction to the influential anthology The New Poetry, Al Alvarez characterised and excoriated what he called "the gentility principle". He was speaking of poetry, but what he said extended to much British art at that time. No one could accuse British writer-director Andrea Arnold of being genteel. She first came to public attention by proclaiming at the Academy Awards ceremony that the Oscar she'd just received for her short film Wasp was "the dog's bollocks", and her second feature-length picture, Fish Tank, makes the 1961 film version of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, of which it is in many ways an updating, look the epitome of gentility.
The tone of Arnold's work is far removed from the British New Wave films of the 1960s, lacking that sense of hope and belief in the essential decency of the working classes found in films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, though it contains in an inchoate form their anger and defiance. Her first-feature, Red Road, which brought her the Prix du Jury at Cannes, was set in a depressed, working-class Glasgow, where its withdrawn heroine scans a bank of CCTV screens bearing images of an unremittingly dismal world. In addition to being a harsh vision of run-down inner city life, it was also a kind of thriller in which an alienated outsider moves from detached spectator to involved participant in the manner of Hitchcock's Rear Window.
Her new film, Fish Tank, also the winner of the Prix du Jury at Cannes, takes us directly into the lives of those observed from a distance in Red Road, and its title suggests a life scrutinised through an intervening screen.
The central character, Mia (a remarkable performance from Katie Jarvis, a 17-year-old newcomer with no previous acting experience), is a pretty 15-year-old schoolgirl living on a rundown Essex estate on the Thames estuary near Tilbury with her 11-year-old sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), and their slatternly mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). There's no sign of a father and as in Red Road there's no formal exposition: we are left to make inferences about the characters from their actions and occasional statements.
It's summer, Mia has been excluded from school and is to start a new one soon, probably as a boarder, but what led up to this situation we don't know. In the opening minutes, however, we discover that feisty is too gentle a word to describe her. She throws a stone up to a second-storey window to attract the attention of a friend. An overweight bruiser in a singlet appears on the balcony and tells her to "fuck off". "If you see her give her a message," Mia replies. "Tell her her father is a cunt."
This verbal aggression is immediately followed by physical violence when Mia picks a quarrel with some girls dancing together in a play area and butts one of them and runs off. Getting home, she finds the police have already called and she has a row with her mother. "What's wrong with you?" Joanne asks. "You're what's wrong with me," Mia replies and proceeds to exchange obscenities with her little sister.
From the very beginning of A Taste of Honey, we know that the teenage Jo yearns for something better. Only gradually do we discover that the surly, angry Mia has an inner life, that she longs for a touch of nature and poetry. She takes pleasure in dancing alone in an empty flat in her block. She is affronted by chained animals and attempts to free what she thinks is a starved horse tethered in a travellers' camp on a waste lot. Above all, her spirits are raised by her mother's new lover, a charming, good-looking Irishman, Connor (Michael Fassbender), a security man at a local warehouse.
He takes the family on a drive into the country and shows Mia how to catch fish by hand, touching something deep in her. This delicate sequence has an unforced lyricism reminiscent of the idyllic scenes where the Yorkshire lad in Kes finds a transcendence in training his kestrel.
But everything turns out badly, though not tragically. There is predatory, if semi-accidental, underage sex and the abduction of a child. Connor turns out to be weak, dishonest, self-deceiving. An audition for a job dancing at a local pub takes her into a nightmare world of sleaze.
In an apparent allusion to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, one of the saddest tales of the 1930s Depression, Mia is told by her new boyfriend, a likable drifter, that the horse she tried to liberate has been put down: it was 16 and its time had come. Fish Tank is a forceful, deeply depressing movie, less enjoyable than Arnold's Red Road, but not quite as pessimistic.