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.