Fish Tank

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IFC  January 2010

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (World Premiere–in competition)–A girl's nascent sexuality and highly restricted social circumstances form the emotional core of "Fish Tank," the involving though problematic and uneven new feature by the talented British director Andrea Arnold.
Three years ago at Cannes Arnold premiered her feature debut, "Red Road." Winner of the prix du jury, it told an alternately cool, disturbing story of sexual power and control about a woman seeking emotional redress against the man that traumatized her.
Now Arnold's back in the Cannes competition, and the new work touches on some of the same themes. The new movie calls to mind any number of Ken Loach movies, especially "Sweet Sixteen," the stripped down, harsh social realism, the free form arrangement of scenes that carry an improvisational intensity, and the dire social surroundings. (Even the casting shows the influence of Loach. The key role of the mother is played by Kierston Wareing, who made her name in Loach's recent "It's a Free World.")
In "Fish Tank," Arnold works in a different emotional and stylistic register than her first film. In "Red Road," the movie's protagonist was a surveillance technician and the movie's look and design played off a prevailing idea of being watched and analyzed.
By contrast, the protagonist of "Fish Tank," is the impulsive, sullen, largely uncontrollable 15-year-old Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis). The movie is cut on the intense, confused consciousness of a young girl.
Collaborating with her very talented cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Arnold works in a very tight, cramped frame. They shoot in the Academy ratio of 1:33. The image is very square. As such, the action feels intensely claustrophobic and clustered that visually reinforces feelings of entrapment or enclosure.
Set in Essex, in the east of London, the movie takes place in a run down, working-class apartment complexes known as council estates. (It's remarkably similar though not quite as sinister as the similar environments of "Gomorrah.") Mia is introduced in tight close up, trying to locate one of the neighborhood friends. She's a live wire, a constant whirl of activity, anger and resentment. She lives with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffith).
The story's set at the end of summer. The early scenes underline Mia's emotional volatility and need for adventure and experience. Mia appears incapable of simple emotional interaction. Her exchanges with her mother are intensely confrontational that typically end with slamming doors or volleys of profanity. Even a planned discussion with a local social worker about attending a special new school ends with Mia avoiding her immediate conflict.
Mia's also estranged from the other neighborhood girls and screaming for attention. The lone outlet for her aggression is her interest in dance, not classical or ballet, but the hard-edged, improvised style imported from the rock videos that she watches relentlessly.

The story kicks in with the appearance of Connor (Michael Fassbender, the lead in Steve McQueen's "Hunger"). He's a handsome, taciturn older man that jolts Mia's frame of reference. "I'm a friend of your mother's," he says. His ease, comfort and sexual allure unsettle Mia. In one of the strongest sequences, she watches furtively her mother and new lover have sex.
Arnold and Ryan are very attentive to Mia's growing fixation toward Connor. Two scenes illuminate the tactile sense of her developing attraction. In the first, Connor sensitively carries her to her bed. In the second, the two wade into a lake to capture a fish. As Mia tentatively moves toward her first serious relationship with an older boy (Harry Treadaway), she tries desperately to work out her feelings and attitude about Connor.
Arnold has a terrific feel for actors. Jarvis had never acted before. According to Arnold, a casting director discovered the 17-year-old girl having an argument on a train platform and approached her about being in the movie. Jarvis' lack of polish and technical training works to the movie's advantage. She has a taut, lithe body, a clipped, fierce line delivery and a direct, unmediated way of working through her feelings.
Fassbender is also terrific. If Jarvis’ work is driven by a manic intensity, his underplayed, cool reserve is a necessary balance. "Fish Tank" also reveals a strong advance in visual command. The movie is sharp at excavating Mia's tormented world visually.

At 125 minutes, Arnold's story is insufficiently detailed and dramatized to justify the duration. In the movie's second half, the plot shifts away from the observant style toward a more incident heavy manner. For all of her talent visually and with actors, Arnold is weakest on plot and narrative shape. The frantic, largely unbelievable actions of the movie’s final third upstage the fierce, emotionally authentic activity of the opening half.
The conception of Joanne, the mother, is too poorly defined and merged with Mia's to make sense of the contentiousness of their relationship.
"Fish Tank" is ultimately a mixed verdict, at once tender and sharp, but also ungainly and insufficiently shaped. It confirms the talent of "Red Road," but never advances and goes to the next level.