A movie like Fish Tank leads to conflicted feelings. On one hand, it's terrific to see a gifted director coming into her own, and a young, talented actress grabbing a role and refusing to let go.
On the other, it's a major downer, because director and star are doing an effective job of depicting miserable, messed-up lives.
When we meet Mia (outstanding newcomer Katie Jarvis), the fiercely pissed-off 15-year-old British girl at the center of Andrea Arnold's gripping film, not much is done to set up the character. She's angry; she lives with her mom and sister in a shoddy apartment; she likes to dance. That's about all we get.
Mia later settles down to watch some female peers dancing. It appears that Mia would like to be part of the routine, but that vibe is broken when she busts a girl's nose with her forehead after harsh words are exchanged. Mia has some serious angst, and, as we soon learn, that angst has gotten her kicked out of school.
Mia spies a mangy horse chained to a rock near a couple of trailers. The horse is owned by Billy (Harry Treadaway), someone close to Mia's age who appears to like her despite her trying to set his horse free. The friendship they strike up is probably the healthiest relationship in the movie—but that's not saying much.
Mia has no father figure, and her mother, Joanne (an appropriately despicable Kierston Wareing), is more concerned about sleeping and drinking with her hunky new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), than the welfare of her daughters.
That boyfriend is going to bring a host of new problems into an already-shattered household. Connor seems charming and responsible at first; he takes the family out to a lake for a fishing excursion, lending his camera to Mia so she can make dancing videos, and offering sage advice when Mia's temper boils up. He's friendly ... but he's a little too friendly. He also sneaks off for occasional, rushed phone calls with a mystery person.
Fassbender's character is the worst kind of movie monster. His Connor has deceptively good traits to go with his creepy tactics, and that charm makes him an effective sleazeball. When Connor makes his final appearance, we get a true sense that we've witnessed the ultimate in human garbage. He's a frightening, unsettling character who should get Fassbender some high-profile gigs in the future.
Arnold, who also wrote the screenplay, sets up her film brilliantly and keeps it on the same path throughout its running time. The story puts you in the trenches of a low-income, socially deranged household, and you feel the verbal and psychological punches.
We often see Mia in a lonely room, playing music and working on dance steps while swigging alcohol. She's a good dancer, and she might have enough talent to get a gig somewhere if she were in a better situation. Early on, the film almost looks like it could be a modern-day Flashdance.
However, we're not meant to walk away from this movie with much hope for Mia. Her life is a colossal mess, and she's not getting help. She seems destined for a life as empty and sad as that of her alcoholic mother. A moment when they dance together is genuinely heartbreaking.
Perhaps Arnold should tackle the horror genre next, because the final act of Fish Tank is so brutal and terrifying. Mia's interactions with a young woman named Keira (Sydney Mary Nash) are as visceral and scary as anything I've seen in a movie this year. Their scenes left me exhausted.
This is one of the more startling treatments of misguided youth in recent years, alongside Precious and, to some extent, the Harry Potter movies. (Those crazy kids should stay away from that dangerous sorcery and witchcraft!) The movie isn't void of humor, but most of its laughs are uncomfortable.
We're still in the first half of the year, but it's my guess that Jarvis' Mia will qualify as one of 2010's more memorable characters. The Internet Movie Database claims she got the role after somebody spied her screaming at her boyfriend in a train station. That's a very believable story.
Besides the anger, Jarvis captures the vulnerability and conflicting emotions of somebody Mia's age. For such a novice, she really hits her marks—and the movie benefits as a result.