The following is my entry in The Criterion Blogathon, hosted November 16-21, 2015 by the blogs Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Please check out the other reviews during the blogathon and enjoy some wonderful Criterion Collection films.
Fish Tank (2009)
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Produced by Kees Kasander, Lisette Kelder, Christine Langan, Nick Laws, David M. Thompson, Paul Trijbits
Screenplay by Andrea Arnold
Cinematography by Robbie Ryan
Edited by Nicolas Chaudeurge
Criterion Collection Blu-ray
In the opening scene of Fish Tank, we see a 15-year-old girl wearing gray sweatpants and layered tank tops, trying to catch her breath inside an abandoned apartment. We aren’t immediately sure what she’s doing there, but in the next 10 minutes, we’ll see this girl dancing hip-hop, breaking another girl’s nose with a head-butt, and getting kicked by her mom. In just 10 minutes, director Andrea Arnold creates a world so real we not only feel we’ve been there, we’re terrified we might never escape from it.
This is the world of Mia (Katie Jarvis), who lives with her slutty mom Joanne (Kierston Wareing, above) and her precocious little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in what Americans would call a housing project, but are known as “council estates” in the UK. Everyone here seems to eke out an existence via welfare and/or various criminal activities. People yell at each other, pick fights, and watch an endless parade of surly children who resemble refugees from bad reality TV shows. What frightens us more than these awful living conditions is the fact that – like those reality TV shows – we’ve largely become numb to them.
Yet this world is the only one Mia knows and when she gets home, things aren’t any better. Her mom’s partying lifestyle doesn’t exactly leave much time for tender family moments and that’s just fine with Mia. Mia has only one desire, to become a hip-hop dancer, which could take her away from her Essex council estate existence. She’s not a very good dancer, but she’s better than the rest of the girls she sees dancing in the film’s opening. One of the girls, fed up with Mia’s stares, yells “What’s your problem?” Without missing a beat, Mia shouts back, “Your terrible dancing’s my problem!” She has no fear when she tries to free a chained-up horse from a run-down trailer encampment, not even when a group of threatening teenage boys race after her.
Mia can handle all this because she’s lived with it her whole life. What she has no experience handling is kindness. When her mom brings home a new boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender), he’s just another in a long line of men who’ll hang around for awhile and then move on. Even when Connor expresses an interest in Mia’s dancing, she won’t let her guard down. She knows he’s only temporary.
One day Connor decides to take everyone for a drive in the country. Mia reluctantly joins her sister and her mom, and even surprises herself when she follows Connor into a pond to help him catch a fish. “Fish are stupid,” Connor says, and with Mia’s help, he catches one. They form something of a bond, although a tentative one. Mia later confides in Connor that she’s using his favorite song, “California Dreaming” as her audition piece for an upcoming dance contest. This is probably the only positive adult male presence Mia’s ever experienced.
We’ve come to expect certain things from coming-of-age movies and in some ways, Fish Tank delivers on those expectations, and in other ways, shatters them. The film contains two scenes that you will never forget. One scene leads to the other, but not immediately. The time between those scenes contains enough tension for a whole festival’s worth of films. We know some type of reckoning is going to happen because of these events, but we aren’t sure what until it’s right there in front of us and we’re gasping, gripping either the chair arm or the person sitting next to us in fear, indignation or both. These two scenes are highly disturbing but enormously effective. You’ll never be able to think about this film without recalling them.
Arnold has to have complete confidence in her script, actors and storytelling skills for these scenes to work and to work within the context of the world she’s created. But it’s not just these two scenes that work; it’s the entire film. We believe Mia’s world, we believe that she’s become hardened to it, and we believe what happens later when her world is shattered. Mia wants to believe in the world of “California Dreaming,” but late in the film we see her with Joanne, a rare moment that shows their tenuous connection as they dance to Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch.”
Life’s a bitch and then you die.
That’s why we get high.
‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.
The scene comes at a pivotal moment in the film. Mia and Joanne may share that dance, but we sense the worldviews contrasted between “Life’s a Bitch” and “California Dreaming” as two worlds that rarely overlap and not for very long.
Fish Tank is a tremendous film, yet one I never hear mentioned in discussions of contemporary films in the Criterion Collection. Maybe people think it’s just another study in British social realism or that it’s too bleak. Maybe they think that a stellar performance by an untrained newcomer (17-year-old Katie Jarvis) is just too good to be true. Or maybe they don’t believe the ending of the film is possible in such a world as this. Fish Tank takes us to places most of us would rather not visit. It makes us breathe in that toxic world and wonder if such a thing as redemption really exists and whether anyone in the film (and, by extension, ourselves) deserves it. Maybe they (and even “we”) don’t deserve it, but every fish tank has an opening, and sometimes you find that you’re oh-so close to reaching it.