Fish Tank is the first great film of 2010. Directed by Andrea Arnold, this British film (which won the Jury Prize at Cannes 2009) is a gritty—though stylishly realized—social realist film that adds a rich new entry to the impressive cinematic pantheon of explorations of the British underclass (refined by the likes of Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh).
Arnold’s film—which centers upon the harrowing coming-of-age confusion of a teenage girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis) in a working class neighborhood—is full of shock and awe (and a little despair), but it’s also shockingly full of hope, beauty, and not a little absolute truth about the adolescent experience. And that’s what makes this film much more than just another grim expose.
In addition to its immediate situation within the aforementioned tradition of social realist filmmakers (Loach, et al), Fish Tank reminded me of two specific recent films: Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2006) and Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009), a best-picture nominee in this year’s Academy Awards. As it turns out, the latter—though bearing little visual resemblance—has quite a bit in common with Fish Tank. Both are directed by women and focus on a teenage girl desperately trying to understand her emerging identity. Both feature uneasy relationships between the younger girls and men twice their age. Both are set in England, etc.
But whereas Education was a more literary, cerebral treatment of the "coming of age" idea, Fish Tank holds any sort of academic idea at arm's length. It's more of a visceral film--less interested in rigorous thematic consistency or psychological revelation than it is with simply showing what growing up and discovering the self (chaotic as this discovery may be) looks like.
There are a lot of memorable images in Fish Tank, and most of them reflect the tension within young Mia between feeling enclosed and isolated (to herself and to others) and desiring connection and freedom (to know and be known). There are some gorgeous recurring shots of Mia in an empty apartment, dancing alone with her headphones on. In these solitary moments—cut off from the world and in her own zone of freely expressed movement and rhythm—Mia seems to at least momentarily assuage the relentless contradictions and radioactive angst of her existence, which in most other cases manifests itself in the form of violence (head-butting a girl she doesn’t like), theft, drinking, or foul language (she loves the c-word).
When she is around people, Mia is much more unstable, angry, and (with good reason) defensive. People have always failed her (dad is completely absent, mom is an uncaring alcoholic), so of course she isn’t going to easily trust or love others. She feels closer to a horse she finds locked up in a vacant lot than she does to any other human in her life.
But in spite of her circumstance, Mia finds moments of connection where she lets herself be touched (sometimes for good and sometimes for ill) by another. The person who most ably finds a way “in” to Mia’s enclosed teenage fortress is Conner (Michael Fassbender, impressive again after great work in Inglourious Basterds and Hunger), her mother’s new boyfriend who is charming, handsome, financially stable and has cool taste in music. To Mia, Conner is the father/brother/boyfriend she never had, and the confusion that results as she tries to make sense of this trifecta of complex relational affections proves to be the film's biggest conflict.
In the midst of the never-ceasing tension and anxiety in the film (expressed visually through quick-paced tracking shots, constant movement and jittery handheld camerawork), there are moments of intense beauty and serenity, such as a scene in a pond where Conner teaches Mia how to catch a fish bare-handed. A striking two-shot of the man and the girl, wading knee-deep in the water with the sunlight bearing down and reflecting around their shadows, embodying the tenuous disposition of wretched man amidst a nature so beautiful that it might cover all transgressions—seemed to me the quintessential shot of the film. A latter shot which also involves two characters amidst nature/water (in significantly more unnerving circumstances) compliments this shot, and ends with a physical embrace so real and elemental that it makes all else in the film seem suddenly trite.
But Fish Tank is exactly this sort of film. It seems to be about one thing but then suddenly, jarringly will assert another sort of truth—something as simple as an extended shot of a skyline at dusk, or a spontaneous dance between mother and daughters—that offers both a respite from and a completion of the larger narrative. It’s a film full of surprising encounters, discordant emotions and unexpected epiphany, all couched in the wobbly tumult of an adolescent female point of view.
In its treatment of existence through the eyes of adolescence, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is as elegantly pulsating as Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides and as psychologically subtle as Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. But make no mistake: Arnold has a vision all her own, unique and assured, and exciting in its promise.