God forgive anyone who makes the same mistake I did, sloughing off any future coming of age films about a young girl trying to make it out of her broken home in the projects as the “Insert Clever Slur Here” Precious. Fish Tank is a derivative film, in that the mores it explores are universal — following dreams, coming of age, teen sexuality, poor home lives, hip-hop dancing — but director Andrea Arnold claps those themes together between her palms, squashing them together as though she were killing a swarm of flies. The result is a harsh and uncomfortable exploration of one teen girl trying to free herself from the tethers of a horrible life. It’s as if someone clawed out all the shitty parts of Step Up or Stomp The Yard and crammed in the meatiest bits of Lolita. As an audience member, you feel complicit in every slag shriek, every slight stroke, every moment when we watch this poor British girl get simply pulverized by the sheer unfairness of life. Its only failure occurs when Arnold lets up the slack and dawdles off into the trappings of independent film tropes: arbitrary shots of birds swooping or trains in the distance, melancholia expressed through walking, and allowing the plot to sort of drift off like a plastic bag aloft in the breeze. However, there are so many wonderful moments, buoyed by some just staggeringly powerful performances, that you can forgive Arnold her jejune errata. Or you can call it the British Precious and feel welcome to go fuck off.
Newcomer Katie Jarvis shines as 15-year-old Mia, a latchkey hellion who spends her time stomping around her projects-neighborhood, head-butting other girls in the face and shouting cunt and fuck every 15 seconds. When not committing acts of soccer hooliganism, Mia spends her time in an abandoned apartment, trying to dance hip-hop to old school beats. It’s not part of some school program, it’s not her way of making it to the big show, it’s just what Mia does, and I like that. She’s not great; while she’s got some groove, some of the time it’s like watching George Michael fight with a lightsaber.
Mia dances as an escape from her awful mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), a barely 30-something single mother saddled with two daughters. While teen pregnancy is a common plot point in films, it’s almost always seen from the perspective of the new high-school mother, but rarely are we shown what happens when a child who had a child at 15 tries to raise a 15-year-old of her own. Joanne never bothered to grow up, and so she treats her daughters like roommates she can swat in the head with a vicious amount of pettiness and spite. She hates her kids for fucking up her life, and so she ignores them by drinking all day and throwing raucous parties.
Enter Connor (Michael Fassbender), a security guard who starts courting Joanne as much as one would expect — showing up at the house with cans of lager and quick, loud screw jobs with Joanne. The dynamic between Mia, Joanne, and Connor is phenomenally well-established, and easily propels the film into both the fascinating and the grotesque. Arnold sets up the relationship between Mia and Connor so well, she could teach a class on it. Connor tries to play the caring boyfriend, playing nice with the kids, trying to make them like him, but never with any sort of vestige of parenting responsibility. Arnold balances the moments between this young teen and older man with such incredible delicateness that you’re never sure whether what you’re watching is someone flirting inappropriately or just being sweet. Mia swipes a bottle of vodka from her mother’s party and passes out drunk upstairs in her mom’s bed. Mia drifts in and out of wakefulness as Joanne insists that Connor prod her out of the bed so they could get their screw on. Connor lifts Mia in his arms and takes her to her bedroom. He sets her gently in the bed, undoing her shoelaces and slipping off her sneakers. Then he unbuttons her pants and removes those, leaving Mia in her panties. He then covers her with a blanket. Again, is it creepy or is he just being a caring person? Is it innocent or deviant behavior? Mia hurts her foot during a family outing, and Connor asks her to jump on his back so he can carry her to the car. Mia climbs up and rests her head on his shoulder. Is he flirting or merely helping a wounded child?
Arnold carries this balance to magnificent lengths for a long while before finally making a decision. At this point, the film completely spirals out of control, taking the story down strange and dark and slightly soap-operaish paths. The rambling only lasts until the penultimate scene, between mother, daughter, and sister, where Arnold gets the film back on track. However, I still feel as though Arnold tripped herself in the middle. It was kind of like watching Full Metal Jacket, where the first part is so harsh and punch-your-face devastating that you can’t even consider whether you like the second half because the first was so strong. Fish Tank drowns towards the finale, only to come gasping up for air when it might be slightly too late.
The performances are nonetheless remarkable. This was Katie Jarvis’s first movie, and it will certainly not be her last. Her foul-mouthed invective and pure spiteful teen anger were amazing. Mia’s never a fragile little dove. She’s a child, tempestuous and spiteful and bitchy and unaware of the power of her own sexuality. She endures because she was raised in a war zone by Peter Pan’s preggo sis. Fassbender’s Connor is a thousand times more horrifying than Humbert Humbert, because he’s believable. No one would doubt that Precious’ mother was a monster, but the worst monsters are the ones who wear human faces. Again, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it’s so hard not to laud Fassbender for being so cringeworthy and charming at the same kick. It’s like watching a boa constrictor who can smile before devouring people whole. Just as much love and admiration need to be heaped on Kierston Wareing and Rebecca Griffiths, who play Mia’s mother and her equally foul-mouthed and precocious little sister Tyler, respectively. Wareing has a difficult role, but she’s mercurial and it’s riveting. It’s immediately apparent where Mia and Tyler get their fiery spirits. Joanne and Tyler lend the film a family dynamic, which adds a profound layer to an otherwise uncomfortable Lolita parable.
Fish Tank surprised and then disappointed me, and then offered some shining moments. I enjoyed its exploration of a burgeoning sexuality without oversexualizing the young girl. There’s just as much voyeurism towards the men of the film as the women. Mia spends most of her time in a baggy tracksuit, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail; she’s not trying to flaunt around in a belly shirts and hot pants. It’s a seemingly accurate representation of what happens after a teen mom has to face the fruits of her labor. And while not every teen pregnancy necessarily has to end up with a single beer-swilling mom shouting profanity at her children, this relationship was shockingly realistic to watch. Fish Tank marks a promising start to several careers, almost at the level of Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. And it’s just as black and disturbing.