Film criticism is like solving a cinematic mystery—figuring out how and why something moved you or failed to. With Andrea Arnold's mesmerizing Fish Tank, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Red Road, the answer lies in what's smartly missing. The British director's filmmaking style is precise and concise, as tight and lean as her teenage heroine. Because this coming-of-age tale contains not one extraneous word or image, its strong visceral atmosphere is allowed to organically emerge.
Arnold immediately captures the over-the-top emotions of adolescence via a disturbing and hilarious opening sequence that moves like an unstable train ride through the projects of impoverished Essex. Fifteen-year-old Mia, played with a terrific awkward ease by newcomer Katie Jarvis, is a simmering rebel with no outlet, looking for a fight. Arnold's handheld cam trails the girl as she aims rocks at an estranged friend's apartment window before stomping away like a raging bull to challenge a posse of sexed-up, hip-hop dancing popular girls, the confrontation ending in Mia delivering a vicious head butt to a pretty nose.
The doors in the flat Mia shares with her partying mum and little sis Tyler (an adorably wise-beyond-her-years Rebecca Griffiths) aren't opened and closed, but forced-in and slammed. Arnold makes Mia's inner discordance visual. It's unnerving to try to reconcile a sweet heart in a snow globe in Mia's room and the strawberries on her pajama bottoms, with the dangerous hammer in her hand as she takes off to free a chained horse. Yet within minutes we know everything there is to know about this young heroine and the threat of violence both external and internal that makes up her working-class world.
The only time gangly Mia can relax is when she's listening to the rap music that speaks directly to her own ghetto reality, or when she's break-dancing alone. The scene in which we see her simultaneously get drunk and dance in an empty space to dull the pain is heartbreaking in its honesty. That Jarvis herself isn't a trained dancer—she doesn't even like dancing, according to the press notes—adds yet another layer of poignancy. Fish Tank is the anti-Flashdance, a story about a working-class girl whose dream, like in real life, will forever remain a dream.
As will the prospect of a romantic relationship with her mother's new boyfriend Connor, played by acting chameleon Michael Fassbender. Like Mia's bottle-blonde mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing, channeling a past-her-prime beauty queen), Connor is every bit as irresponsible and immature as Mia. While Mia and Tyler drink beer and smoke, surrounded by girly heart-shaped objects and kids drawings hanging on the wall, Joanne and Connor act on their every bodily whim, from booze to sex, with no control. The children grow up too fast as the adults regress, making for an often hilarious, dysfunctional family-sitcom-meets-horror-story when opposing needs collide.
Indeed, Mia and Tyler's perceptive dialogue usually matches the adults word for word. "There's like a million fucking bugs on this rock!" tiny Tyler exclaims on a rare outing. "Who's Kelly?" Mia asks, wondering about Connor's heart tattoo. "She's just an ex-girlfriend," the smooth operator replies, his lightning-fast nonchalance speaking volumes. Arnold's heart motif ironically underscores the fact that love is a foreign concept to these blue-collar folks struggling just to survive.
But not knowing healthy love can be very dangerous for an angry and confused girl on the verge of womanhood, especially one caught alone with an equally impulsive adult. There's a gorgeous scene, serving as Fish Tank's centerpiece, which is nearly perfect in showing how seduction can turn to coercion in the blink of an eye. Under beautiful yellow lighting and to sultry music, Mia dances, her body becoming sexual even as her brain remains that of a 15-year-old. It's a universal coming-of-age dilemma, but one rarely dealt with on screen. Through the subtlest of details, Arnold, like her fellow post-punk countryman director Shane Meadows, distills the spirit of adolescence even as she places it solidly within the frame.
Or traps it inside the character of a mother of two. Toward the end, when Mia and Tyler bust some moves with Joanne, Mia's face simultaneously registers love, defiance that she will not become her mum, and a pained sorrow for the choices Joanne has made. By the time Tyler grabs her big sis as she leaves for good, hugs her tight while sobbing, and then yells, "I hate you!," the line makes complete logical sense. Love and hate cannot help but be mixed up when sealed away in a childproof tank.