The Film: Fish Tank (2009)

The Principals: Director: Andrea Arnold.    Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender

The Premise: 15 year old Mia (Jarvis) lives in one of England’s bleak blocks of flats, filled to the brim with the underprivileged.   With a mother more intent on drinking, smoking, and hook-ups than looking after her two daughters, Mia is on her own.    She drinks, she smokes, she rages, and pours herself into hip-hop and dancing.

But then one morning, a handsome fellow (Fassbender) in low-slung trousers shows up in the kitchen for a cuppa tea. He’s her mother’s new boyfriend, and Mia initially keeps her distance, having seen a few of them come and go. But Connor sticks around. He cares.   He acts like a proper stepfather, and Mia is initially drawn to him as such, but then emotions and attraction becomes more complicated and creepy.  And as Charles Dickens enjoyed pointing out again and again, good things in the lives of the poor and miserable are usually a trick.

Is It Good: It’s excellent.  I’ve been one of Arnold’s few detractors, as I didn’t care for Red Road at all. I was afraid Fish Tank would be more of the same shrillness and outlandishness.

But everything I disliked about Red Road is absent from Fish Tank. It’s beautifully shot, eschewing cold florescent lamps for milky sunlight and startling lush pockets of grass, river and sea.  The contrast between Mia’s cement prison and the glory of the countryside might be too on the nose (the same could be said of her friendship with a chained horse), but it looks so damn good and is so excusable within the story that I don’t dare criticize it.

Fish Tank also stays firmly in the realm of believability.   I hate to keep bringing up Red Road, but that story went to a place I found absolutely ludicrous.   Fish Tank almost crosses that line again.  There’s a moment towards the end where it nearly betrays its troubled heroine. You can almost smell Arnold’s temptation to throw her to the wolves.  But she dials it back from the brink of crazy, and keeps it on just this side of chilling.


Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely. It’s been talked about quite a bit, so I feel pretty silly writing it up at all.  But it’s on Netflix Instant Watch at this very moment, and there’s always the slight chance that a piece like this nudges a few souls in the right viewing direction.

Plus, this is a week when every other article is titled “Movies About Women Are Interesting!”, so it feels appropriate to highlight one of many films that aren’t afraid to shade women as troubled, sad, and complicated individuals who often make poor decisions.   Mia makes a few, yet she’s never someone we hate. You want to lecture her, perhaps, but you can’t hate her.  There’s an incredible moment when Connor gives her a piggyback ride that is so utterly evocative in its warmth, sensuality, and emotion that you understand exactly what she wants, and why she begins to be drawn to this man in such a complicated way.  If I was forced to create the equivalent of a cinematic mix tape to say what it feels like to be a girl (hi, Madonna), that scene would be on it.

Besides, it’s Michael Fassbender.  Man, woman, straight or gay, you know you want to watch this just for him.

Random Anecdotes: A lot of films tout their unknown actors, but generally those unknowns wanted to be actors, so it’s just a trumped up Cinderella story.  Jarvis is the real thing, having been hired right off a train platform after the casting director watched her screaming at her boyfriend.    I suspect she’s playing a version of herself, but it takes a rare level of comfort to be able to do that so effortlessly in front of a camera, and hold their own against the likes of Fassbender.