Fish Tank

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Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) won the Jury Prize at Cannes and received almost exclusively rave reviews upon its initial release.  Fish Tank utilizes contemporary cinematic tactics such as a hand held camera, natural lighting, and exclusively diegetic sound. Arnold fabricates her cinematic world with an eye towards anthropology. Fish Tank turns reality back on the spectator, assaulting them with social relevance, but without the plasticity of a Hollywood message movie. Arnold simply wants her audience to see and hear Mia’s (Katie Jarvis) existence.

Fish Tank follows a long line of British dramas set in the tenement buildings of England’s urban sprawl.  Like Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983), Fish Tank’s narrative and its characters are unique to their particular region of England and gives a dramatic voice to the lower classes of England. More specifically, Fish Tank is set in Havering and the neighboring town of Tilbury. Mia and her family reside in a tenement building positioned near a highway; both locations are central in the film and do more than just provide a cultural context for the film’s characters. 

Within this semi-fictional world, Mia navigates confrontations with her single, alcoholic mother (Kierston Wareing), fights with her little sister (Rebecca Griffiths), practices dance routines, and busts the noses of the local girls.  Mia has a chip on her shoulder. Though there is no explicit explanation for the absence of Mia’s father, the ramifications of his absence serve as the catalyst for Mia’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender).

The attention and encouragement Connor provides merely fills a void in Mia’s life that a father might fill.  The manner in which Connor gives fulfillment to Mia’s life is, unsurprisingly, more romantic in nature.  Over the course of the film, Connor’s “big brother” behavior transforms into sexual behavior, and he uses his position with Mia to seduce her one night when her mother has passed out drunk.

What makes the relationship between Mia and Connor feel fresh is how natural the performances are, how the film allows the characters to develop and unfold at a leisurely pace.  From Connor’s introduction, it is clear that he will make sexual advances toward Mia, but Fish Tank prolongs its inevitable conclusion, building the tension vigorously.  Their relationship is given added dimension during the film’s climax in which Mia discovers Connor has a secret family and a daughter of his own.  After breaking into Connor’s house, urinating on his floor, and sneaking out the back when he returns, Mia kidnaps his daughter.

The attempted kidnapping is not planned, but occurs spontaneously when Connor’s daughter rides her scooter passed Mia.  Mia lures the little girl away easily enough, but controlling the little girl as they traverse a field proves difficult.  Mia’s incessant cursing and Connor’s daughter’s kicking and screaming make the scene darkly comedic.  Neither one is effective in her role, and both behave equally terrified of the situation.  However, Mia’s nerves give out, and she knocks Connor’s daughter into a reservoir.  After this close brush with death Mia returns the little girl to her home.

The scenes of Mia’s attempted kidnapping are the scenes in which Mia transforms and is able to overcome her own self-centered agenda.  Until Mia seeks out revenge on Connor, she only ever reacts in her best interest, regardless of the various ramifications her actions have.  To further indicate Mia’s transformation, Andrea Arnold has Mia leave her dance audition before she even gets started.  The audition had been Connor’s idea, that he encouraged and even inspired Mia’s music choice for.  That Mia is able to walk away signifies that she is able to back off the track on which, until that moment, Mia’s life seemed set.  Mia opts to travel to Wales with her boyfriend.  Both decisions on Mia’s part represent her escape from the insular world of her family and tenement life.

Mia’s self-discovery is tied to sexual abuse; its depiction and its alignment with earlier narrative threads give it a refreshing relevance and urgency. That is the beauty of Fish Tank, that it is able to transcend cliché and formula with its emphasis on the work of the film’s performers. Of all the films released in the past, the best ones are always those that put all the emphasis on the film’s characters.