Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold’s second feature, is the heir to a long-standing British tradition of Kitchen Sink Realism, in which the pains and reality of Britain’s lower class denizens are captured in what is often a pared down realist aesthetic. Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother (Kierston Wareing) and hilariously potty-mouthed sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in a low-rent tenement. She’s been expelled from school, is prone to outbursts of violence, has no friends and a lush of a mother who treats Mia’s existence as the weight of the cross. The film pivots on the relationship Mia establishes with Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend, who seems to take an interest in Mia, slowly chipping away at her centurion guard and encouraging her to pursue hip-hop dancing (Mia’s one pleasure and mode of escape).
Basically, the film suffers from the same problem as its central character: heart’s in the right place, but its excesses are sometimes a bit too much. Arnold has good visual sensibility, yet she loves to send up red flags of “pay attention, this is important!” which actually ends up taking away from the moment by pulling you out of it. Case in point: While on an excursion, Mia accidentally cuts her foot. Her mother and Tyler cringe at the blood and scurry away to the car, while Connor attends to the wound and offers a piggy back ride. Once Mia jumps on Connor’s back the shot becomes slow-motion, so you can hear every breath of air Mia takes and really internalize the moment; finally someone is showing Mia some attention, some kindness, and clearly there’s a burgeoning attraction between Mia and Connor, so it’s all very momentous. Here’s the thing: We can appreciate the beauty of one human being doing a small act of kindness for another, and understand how profound of a moment this probably is in Mia’s life, without time having to slow down.
The organic occurrence of the event loses some of its vitality, its, dare I say, realism, when so forcibly drawn attention to via the imposed poeticism of time being drawn out. Arnold employs slow-motion numerous times and this is, admittedly, a small thing to quibble over. But honestly, the film is good, and could have been great, with the reduction of such flourishes.
Arnold does know how to let a moment be beautiful and poignant without forcibly making us take notice. In a scene which the entire film builds up to, Mia shows Connor the dance routine she’s worked out for her audition. The sexual tension between them is nearly bursting off the screen. They’re in the living room and she’s standing against the backdrop of palm trees and beach surf wallpaper that grace the back wall. It’s night out and a street lamp casts a soft golden light into the room, illuminating and almost animating the beach backdrop as Mia dances in front. The shot is quietly stunning. A moment of beauty created out of what was banal seconds before, without any visual cues as to its perceived importance.
Aside from the formal qualities, the other problem is that even though this is supposed to be a real hard-nosed look at the life of one struggling teen, the hard-knocks are piled on a bit thick. I understand that life can be very difficult and that some people really do have it very rough, but does Mia have to have a terrible mother and no friends? Is it really necessary for everything to be so dreadful? Or, even if the mother really is terrible, can’t there be at least a few moments in which she’s at least briefly redeemed in relation to her daughter (and no, that scene at the end doesn’t count); no one and nothing is ever just black and white.
However, it is because of Mia’s near total dead-end existence that Connor’s such a beacon of hope. Irish-raised Michael Fassbender turns in another incredible performance (right on the heels of Hunger and Inglourious Basterds), once again proving that he’s the master of accents. He fills Connor with the right amount of charm, slyness and just a hint of nearly intangible off-ness. Katie Jarvis is equal measures caustic power and vulnerability, turning Mia into a volatile girl who can’t see past the ramifications of her immediate actions, yet who yearns for some sort of warmth. Fish Tank is often excessive, but on the strength of a fine cast and Arnold’s ability to understand the psyche of a young girl, it achieves measures of true insight and poignancy.
Veronika Ferdman is a student at USC, earning BA’s in Philosophy and Critical Studies-Film.