Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2010) – If anything can be said for British filmmakers, it’s that they know how to do gritty realism. I loved This is England a couple years ago, and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank just blew me away. This was the first film I’ve seen from 2010, and it’s got me thinking it’s an early front runner for my 2010 top ten list (2009 will be published March 6, don’t worry).
The film is shot resolutely from the point of view of our protagonist Mia. Mia is a 15-year-old girl growing up in an economically depressed area in Essex. Her mother is usually drunk and does a pretty awful job at keeping Mia out of trouble. The apartment is tiny, and everyone is usually yelling at each other at the top of their lungs. The movie doesn’t get into politics, but nevertheless the words “welfare state” came to mind.
When she’s told, “Your mother’s passed out,” Mia deadpans, “She does that.” Nothing surprises this girl. Mia seems to be particularly perceptive and attuned to her surroundings, but generally these kids grow up fast. A stroll down the street often requires a good deal of braggadocio just to avoid getting punched in the mouth, or worse. Mia is an old soul already bruised and battered by the oppression of others. And I’m not talking about class oppression. She is oppressed by her peers, as everyone seems to be out for themselves. Her harsh outer shell is a protective barrier, and a means to maintaining her independence. Mia turns to hip hop dancing (only by herself) as an escape and a place to direct her energies. She also drinks nearly as much as her mother.
One day, Mia wakes up and enters the kitchen to find Mom’s new boyfriend Connor in a t-shirt and his underwear. As we see everything from her point of view, this scene crystallizes the nature of their relationship as we see it develop. She is attracted to him physically, he knows it, and he proceeds to put himself on display for her, coming up with excuses for them to be physically touching each other. The only reason Mom doesn’t see the flirtations between Connor and Mia for what they are is because her past experiences with her daughter have led her to regard Mia as a basic screw-up, and thus she poses no threat.
What’s that old lesson when writing fiction? Details, details, details. This movie gets all the details perfect. For example, when Mom searches through Connor’s music and doesn’t recognize anything, she reacts, “Your CDs are really weird.” Connor incredulously wonders how anybody could think Bobby Womack is weird. I always like it when taste and exposure to music is used to develop the inner lives of characters. People in movies don’t talk about these things enough.
The emotional details are just as precise. When Connor, out of apparent sincerity, starts giving advice to Mia on how to improve her lot, she immediately pulls out of the flirtations and throws up that prickly shell she’s been using as protection. She wants to be happy; she wants Connor to sweep her off her feet and take her out of her misery, but she instinctually puts up a wall when anybody dares to tell her about her life. We don’t actually see what happened to her before the movie started (there are no flashbacks), but presumed past hardships are presently felt.
What’s really refreshing about Fish Tank is that it isn’t a movie about “coming of age” or “learning a lesson” – at least not in any cliché’d sense. This is a movie about the latest (and, granted, likely the worst) in a string of disappointments in life. The film doesn’t let anybody off the hook, and it doesn’t treat them like children. The sense conveyed by the overwhelmingly emotional finale is one of profound existential regret.
The performances are all dead-on perfect, and the camera is always intimately close to make sure we get the details. Arnold shoots the film beautifully, with a naturalistic handheld style that is contemplative when it needs to be, and blurry and whipping when the emotions are being rattled. Go see this movie.
Maxwell Anderson is an avid film watcher and blogger. He is also a freelance assistant video editor in New York City. You can contact him through his blog Ecstatic Text: http://ecstatictext.blogspot.com.