Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold

Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold

This powerful take on troubled teenage subverts social realist conventions as well as underclass clichés, according to Tom Jennings

Anti Social Behaviour Opera. Film review – Tom Jennings
Fish Tank’s 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) is angry at everyone and everything in her life on an Essex council estate. Her vicious invective constantly threatens to boil over: at home in a cramped high-rise with party-girl single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and precocious little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths); in the neighbourhood fighting running battles wth peers; and facing social services intervention following school exclusion. For respite she dances alone in an empty flat fuelled by cheap cider and hip-hop – honing b-girl routines being the only discipline she accepts. Then, restlessly roaming the area, she becomes fascinated by a horse tethered on waste ground and repeatedly fails to free it, nonetheless forming a tentative friendship with Billy (Harry Treadaway), one of its traveller family owners.
Meanwhile Joanne’s latest conquest Conor (Michael Fassbender) charms her daughters too (Tyler’s initial conclusion: “I like you: I’ll kill you last”), taking them on excursions and encouraging Mia’s vague dreams of a dancing career. His avuncular friendliness and interest touches her but also arouses sexual attraction – which one night, with mum dead-drunk upstairs, they consummate. He promptly bails out but Mia tracks him to a private estate in a nearby town, discovering he’s a married father. In a vengeful rage she entices the six-year old daughter away, narrowly avoiding a fatal accident in the estuary. Then, at a local nightclub’s dance audition she’s been practicing for, she walks out in disgust without performing. Finally, learning Billy’s horse has died, she accepts his offer of a trip to stay with relatives in Wales.
Both this and the director’s previous feature (Red Road*) won the coveted Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival – and her 2003 short film, Wasp (rehearsing some of Fish Tank’s themes), an Oscar. With meticulous casting and deft preparation of script and acting – including, here, from superb first-timers Jarvis and Griffiths supported by the equally excellent Wareing and Fassbender – Andrea Arnold distinctively integrates expressionistic and symbolist cinematography and visual design into narrative development, confounding expectations based on familiar generic formulae. Keeping the camera close to the protagonist’s point-of-view, her careful attention to conflicts and complexities of character and situation strenuously witholds backstories and resists sentimentality or easy resolutions. Insisting on the rich emotional and social texture of working-class life – even in the most unfavourable circumstances – the films invite but resist the prejudicial stereotyping typically traded by mainstream representations.
In this case the portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics is thoroughly affecting and convincing (Joanne: “What the hell’s wrong with you?”; Mia: “You’re what’s wrong with me!”), with combined economic, social and cultural impoverishment apparently inexorably yielding hopeless disaster. But despite a habitually repellent interpersonality, the girl’s restless, questioning gaze consistently finds mystery, strangeness and beauty around the estate and out into the semi-rural Thames estuary sprawl’s marginal spaces and dilapidated vegetation. Biographically conditioned to default responses of frustrated resentment, she can’t yet interpret or usefully deploy this sensitivity and imaginative openness to passionate experience. But, for example, Billy’s incipient mobility counterpointing the imprisonment of the horse (which turns out to be a sick old mare), or the adrenaline rush when Conor, with her help, tickles a fish from the lake (later dumped on the floor for the dog’s dinner) tantalise Mia’s dawning determination to escape the prosaic constraints hitherto hemming her in – evoking more the glass walls of a fish tank rather than the glass ceilings which preoccupy more upwardly-mobile types.
This sophisticated rites of passage transcends time-honoured conservative caricatures of out-of-control delinquent chavs drowning noble aspirations to hardworking betterment – while never shying away from the potentially dire consequences of youth disaffection. And though Arnold’s titular metaphor invites superior perspectives on poverty traps and sink estates (most critics predictably following suit), the film itself prefers their inhabitants’ fractiously vibrant intimacy, wit, incipient intelligence and spirit – further showing how such vital human impulses can twist into malevolent or self-destructive acts when desperation narrows the limits of the foreseeable. Even a family this fragile nurtures as well as neglects – the home and kids are physically well cared-for, and emotional bonds run as deep as its extremes of profanity. But the refusal to relinquish desirous intensity – however inadequately articulated, developed and negotiated – or subsume it in respectable female role prescriptions, inevitably precipitates conflict among difficult daughters and immature mothers fixed in arrested adolescence.
These currents in the Fish Tank contextualise its masterstroke. Lower-class exuberance and earthy sexuality not only patchily trump tragic victimhood, but also echo through its sociohistorical soundtrack. Urban music from classic soul and lovers rock through to rap and grime animate its public culture over four decades of shifting working-class fortunes from the heydays of Ford Dagenham and Tilbury Docks to present prospects of service-industry McJobs. For Mia, the genuine resonance of Black music now offers only sleazy self-commodification, whereas she loses her virginity not to some cynical exploiter but a weak, well-meaning acquaintance – after Conor previews her routine like Simon Cowell appraising a hopeful. Pop Tart fame is anyway out of reach, since her dancing’s actually not very good, and her scepticism at the club mirrors an earlier dismissal of local lasses gyrating in sub-par streetcorner R&B video style and fashion – nailing its objectifying reduction while secretly ruefully envying its sensual call-and-responsiveness. Finally, Nas’ pivotal hip-hop album Illmatic (1995) is Mia’s leaving present for her mum as they dance together, showing and sharing love explicitly for the first time here. But the film’s gist transforms the signature refrain into “Life’s a bitch, and then you live”. Because these fish certainly aren’t kitchen-sinking, let alone tanking, and – whether applied to her films or to Arnold herself – you just know that this bitch will not be going quietly.
* see my review in ‘Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision’, Variant, 29 (2007). Fish Tank is released on DVD on 25th January.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 22, November 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Dec 1 2009 12:43


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