It’s a fact: Being a teenager is hard enough as it is (Or was, for those of us lucky enough to have grown past that period). But living in a lower-class household with your foul-mouthed mother and little sister (While being foul-mouthed yourself) and being a social outcast is even harder as a teenager. Then an unexpected person comes into your life and attempts to make it better…or do they? This is the scenario that is played out on screen in Andrea Arnold’s award-winning (2010 BAFTA for Best British Film) coming-of-age indie, 2009’s Fish Tank.
Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a 15-year-old Essex misfit with dreams of becoming a hip-hop dancer. Ill-tempered, she often gets into verbal altercations with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), her peers, and even strangers. One day, Mia meets Joanne’s latest boyfriend, a handsome Irishman named Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor seems promising in making life better for the family, and helps Mia overcome her social challenges. But when the unexpected happens and an even more unexpected discovery is made, Mia’s life—and the lives of her mother and sister—threatens to turn completely upside down once again.
The opening shot of Fish Tank—of Mia looking out the window of her housing estate—sets forth the intimate narrative, a story of an adolescent girl trapped in a broken home and in her flawed self. Arnold accomplishes excellence by allowing viewers to see and feel the limited world through the eyes of the protagonist. It’s thorough and dramatic, and true indie cinema with soul. There are scenes of the high tensions with Mia and her family and her ventures into the streets, attempting to dodge the other girls who chastise her, but ends up retaliating with her tough mouth instead. Then there are scenes of her awkwardly practicing her hip-hop moves. There’s also her watching other dancers both in-person and on YouTube, and you can sense both the happiness as Mia continues to realize her ambition, and jealousy when she watches the scantily clad teenage girls outside her home do it, unhesitating to tell them she has a problem with their “table dancing.”
Then there’s Connor. He’s charming, witty, has model looks, and clearly brings out qualities in Mia that are unseen early in the movie. With Connor, Mia shows warmth. Her constant mug curls into smiles and she shows a willingness to engage in and embrace positive human interaction, all while retaining her snarky, rebel attitude. There’s somewhat of a father figure quality to Connor. He tucks Mia in bed after she unexpectedly falls asleep in her mother’s room, tends to a wound she gets when the two pull a fish out of lake, and he obliges when she visits him at work one day with a new friend (Played by Henry Treadaway) and cons him into lending them money for booze. But throughout, uncomfortable complexities in the developing friendship show its fangs. The last 40 minutes or so can be a bit shocking, perhaps disturbing as reality is revealed. However, as the film comes to a close, it is evidential that Mia has grown up through whatever ordeals she has experienced in the past and the ordeals we, the viewers, have experienced with her.
Jarvis as the troubled Mia is one-of-a-kind as the temperamental lead. Having never acted in a film before Fish Tank (She was supposedly discovered by a talent agent while arguing with her boyfriend at a train station featured in the movie), rawness and grit come seamlessly in her very believable portrayal of the strong teen character. The young Griffiths is rude and inhibited, yet likable and endearing as the little sister Tyler, and Wareing as the stinging, though sometimes oblivious, matriarch embodies the lack of stable and loving parentage in Mia’s life. Fassbender, who from the cast has made the biggest mainstream American crossover with Inglorious Basterds and has a plentiful roster of big films coming up later this year, fits into the role of the cool and mysterious Irish boyfriend flawlessly. He naturally has the free spirit for Jarvis’ character to find her own, but also the dark power that Connor possesses to eventually destroy what should have been a good thing.
A story that can resonate with many and is told with hard talk, heartbreak, and hope through Arnold’s wide and open vision and the incredible acting chops of Jarvis and company, Fish Tank paints a provocative and thoughtful portrait of hard-luck English teenage life.