This BAFTA winner from writer/director Andrea Arnold is an irritable, gritty tale of teen angst. So gritty in fact, during the screening I could feel actual flecks of dirt settling on my head. The story is all about young Mia (Katie Jarvis), an aimless15 year-old growing up near grimy Tilsbury, Essex. She lives with her mouthy little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and her mom Joanne (Kirsten Wareing), a fading party girl who has never let childrearing interfere with her quest for a good time. The rough-hewn family shares an untidy apartment in a high rise so seedy and shabby you half expect Helen Mirren to squeal into the driveway any second, SWAT team in tow.
It’s a safe bet Arnold has seen a few films by the Dardenne Brothers, and she faithfully copies their style with bouncy shots of Mia trudging through all manner of smelly bleakness. During one of her slag-heap constitutionals, Mia comes upon an unusual sight; a large gray horse chained up near a weedy array of squatter trailers. She becomes obsessed with freeing the beast, and her efforts nearly get her raped by a gang of passing hooligans. Arnold is trying really hard to make a point here about Mia’s inability to think things through and truly understand the consequences of her decisions. While freeing the horse may seem like a heroic gesture, the animal would likely starve amid Tilbury’s metalwork shops and industrial plants.
Mia’s one ambition in life, to be a background dancer in music videos, seems as poorly conceived as her notions of animal rescue. In fact, dancing is a recurrent motif here, as Arnold slips in scenes of various characters engaged in booty shaking whenever the proceedings get a bit stale. Perhaps she is equating an interest in dancing with lack of awareness and mental acuity. But, like most of her scatter-shot metaphors, it hard to tell where Arnold actually stands on the issue.
When Mom brings home a studly hunk named Connor (Michael Fassbender), the household is turned into further chaos as Mia and Joanne begin to compete for his sleazy attentions. Connor works as a security guard at a Brit version of Home Depot, where he insures the plywood and roofing shingles remain unmolested. He exercises no such vigilance in his private life however and soon Connor’s insatiable appetites cause a huge mess that renders Mia even more of a confused jumble. In the film’s shocking climax, Mia is finally confronted with the notion of personal responsibility, and decides not to become just another predator of the weak.
The hints at Mia’s redemption are Arnold’s best work in the entire film. We see Mia begin to leave childish things behind and seek out the company of kind-hearted friend Billy (Harry Treadway). These scenes flow with a grace and subtlety oddly missing from the rest of the film. Like the hip hop music that defines Mia’s life, the majority of Fish Tank is so in-your-face it oversells its own grungy reality. In the early going, the film comes very close to shutting audiences out entirely, and there are temptations aplenty to simply eject the disc and move on. When directors like Michael Haneke and the Dardennes depict the barren reality of the downtrodden, there’s a spellbinding authenticity lurking underneath. The bulk of Arnold’s film just seems like a potty-mouthed TV movie tarted up in arty clothes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go wash that film right out of my hair.