Misery loves company? Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (U.K.) is intimate and unpredictable.

'Fish Tank's Essex truth

Dennis Harvey January 28, 2010

Writer-director Andrea Arnold created a stir with her first feature Red Road, which scooped up the 2006 Cannes Prix du Jury among a slew of other awards. (She’d also won the Live Action Short Oscar a year prior for Wasp.) It was a dark and surprising drama about a Glasgow woman who develops an obsessive, stalker-type interest in an ex-con who’s unaware they’d had a significant prior encounter long before.

The new Fish Tank which opens this Friday in Bay Area theaters, is arguably an even stronger work. It confirms Arnold–writing solo this time, where Red Road was based on characters created by others for a unique Denmark-Scotland coproduction trilogy–as one of the most promising screen talents to emerge from Britain in recent years. If Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are in the autumn of their creative lives, it’s good news that Arnold (once a TV actress and presenter) is still near the start of her directorial one. (Even if she’s reached that point on the edge of 50.)

At first glance Fish Tank looks like yet another dose of lower-class U.K. miserabilism a la Loach and older Leigh, albeit a particularly vivid one. Our protagonist is Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old inhabitant of South London ‘burb Essex.

Opening scenes establish her as what Brits call a “hoodie”–foul-mouthed, foul-tempered idle youth forever hanging about on the street, dressed vaguely gangsta-style–par excellence. Storming around the council-housing ‘hood, Mia turns every encounter into a confrontation–no wonder she hasn’t any friends. She expects the worst from people, and usually provokes them into delivering it.

Needless to say, her home life ain’t exactly nurturing. Single mum Joanne (KierstonWareing) is a seemingly unemployed 30ish party girl who obviously had kids too young; the father or fathers are long gone. Mia’s younger sis Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) can’t be 10 yet, but she too smokes and drinks given the chance. The sole thing that could be called positive in Mia’s life is her interest in hip-hop dance, which she practices awkwardly but determinedly in an abandoned apartment nearby.

One morning day she’s in their kitchen as Connor (Michael Fassbender) saunters in–a shirtless hunk, mom’s new “friend,” who calmly endures her insults and makes tea for all. Connor is a disorienting presence for Mia: It’s quite possible she’s scared off, or perhaps never met, any adult who’s really nice. He’s gallant, charming, funny, funky (with a jones for R&B legend Bobby Womack), and his parental instincts are a whole lot better than Joanne’s non-existent ones.

When he moves in, Mia’s confused feelings–mixing paternal, erotic and romantic longing–inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, she finds a possible first friend/boyfriend in 19-year-old Billy (Harry Treadaway), who lives with two older brothers in a camper van on a vacant lot where they also keep an old horse.

Intimate and unpredictable, Fish Tank looks at first to be a major downer. It brightens–then darkens again, to near-horrific extent. Where it ends up I won’t say, beyond noting that Arnold’s script traverses a rather extraordinary amount of emotional terrain, all sharply observed and credible.

Jarvis had never acted before she was asked to audition after being seen arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform. (She disliked dancing, too.) It’s a wonderfully assured, tough, vulnerable performance akin to Gabourey Sidibe’s in Precious as an example of untrained instinct shaped by an astute director. The other major performance is by Irish-born professional thesp Fassbender, who made a visceral impression as imprisoned IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as Hunger. (Also in 2008, he starred in a lesser-seen personal favorite, the harrowing “hoodie horror” film Eden Lake). All the supporting roles are superbly played, by pros and non-pros alike.

Red Road was impressive but a little too steadfastly glum for me. Fish Tank runs the gamut from harsh to humorous to poignant. (Not necessarily in that order, particularly when repeated.) Barely more than square in terms of aspect ratio, it’s far from bigger-than-life. Yet at the end you feel you’ve taken a real journey, one whose fadeout could never have been guessed from its beginning, middle, or even ten minutes before the final credit crawl. And it all feels very true to life.