Kate Jarvis makes a glorious big-screen debut as a tough-as-nails teenager.
A cockney Precious with the volume turned down, Andrea Arnold’s sparse, deeply moving Fish Tank follows a troubled 15-year-old girl whose only defense is aggression. Wandering around a run-down British housing project that seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, Mia (Kate Jarvis) lashes out at everybody around her with a barrage of profane slurs and head-butts. She secretly practices dancing in an abandoned apartment upstairs, but such self-expression and childish dreams have no place in this grim, poverty-stricken wasteland. Whether on the streets or in her miserable home, Mia wears a suit of furious armor.
You can’t blame her, really. Mom (Kierston Waering) is a boozy, casually abusive party girl who won’t grow up. Her little sister (Rebecca Griffiths) smokes cigarettes and curses like a sailor. Mia can’t even visit a starving horse chained up at the junkyard down the block without almost getting raped, and in these early stages Fish Tank feels like it may become almost too oppressive to bear.
Then we meet Mom’s new boyfriend Connor. A shifty, charming lout played with a quiet strain of delicacy by the fantastic Michael Fassbender, he’s the first person to show Mia any affection, or even any respect for that matter. He might as well be from another planet, taking these three ladies out for a drive to the seaside. Connor catches a fish while Mia stares in wonder, as if seeing a universe beyond those dreary walls for the very first time. (Meanwhile, Mom just wants to go to the pub.)
Much of Fish Tank feels like an accident waiting to happen, with Mia’s confused, burgeoning sexuality drifting slowly toward Connor’s slightly suspect attention. He encourages her to pursue her dancing, and laughs off her reflexive insults. There’s a palpable connection that’s more than a little bit queasy, and if nothing else, the film shows up the glossy, empty lies of An Education , which shares several key plot developments, albeit handled in startlingly different ways.
Working in a rough-hewn, matter-of-fact style similar to that of Ken Loach, Arnold has a knack for just hanging back and letting her scenes breathe. It’s the right choice, as there’s no point in emphasizing the hopelessness of Mia’s surroundings. (We don’t need another Precious , thank you very much.) She does however, have an unfortunate weakness for on-the-nose nature symbolism, and if there’s an animal anywhere onscreen during Fish Tank , the corresponding metaphor is guaranteed to be a groaner.
In a casting story that sounds too good to be true, they say Kate Jarvis was discovered by the director while having a screaming match with her boyfriend on a train platform. If so, it’s a miracle performance from a non-actor. Mia is prematurely hardened, yet we can always see the waves of roiling vulnerability that her anger tries to disguise. Fassbender, who delivered two completely unrecognizable turns last year—first as starving Irish martyr Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger , then the dashing film-critic-turned-spy in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds —is proving to be quite the minimalistic chameleon. Connor should by all rights come off as reptilian, but Fassbender plays him more confused than conniving. He’s the most helpless sexual predator I’ve ever seen in a movie.
As long as she keeps away from the overwrought fish and horses, Arnold’s work is quietly devastating. She keeps the camera close to Jarvis, shooting from POV angles whenever possible. There’s no outside perspective or authorial distance imposed on the material; Fish Tank is as close as we can get to seeing this grim world through Mia’s own eyes. The stray glimpses of humanity shine brighter this way, as when Mom (a shrieking harridan who casually informs her daughter that she was almost aborted) wordlessly reaches for a connection. For a brief, shattering moment this ravaged family is reunited, dancing in the kitchen. How sadly appropriate then, that their song is Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch (Then You Die).” B+