Es­sex in the city

Fish Tank, me­lan­choly hip-hop-Brit-girl drama, not rated, The Screen, 4 chiles

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

Mother Teresa of Cal­cutta once of­fered that “the most ter­ri­ble poverty is lone­li­ness and the feel­ing of be­ing unloved.” And lately, no one brings that tragic sen­ti­ment to the screen— in Bri­tish cin­ema, at least — quite as in­ti­mately as film­maker An­drea Arnold, who pre­vi­ously tapped into the bleak­ness of the UK’s alien­ated lower class in 2007’s voyeuris­tic, sex­u­ally charged thriller Red Road.

In Fish Tank, Arnold trades Red Road’s Glasgow ten­e­ments for a row of dreary coun­cil flats in a di­lap­i­dated cor­ner of Es­sex, and she trains her lens fully on a new­comer to the world of film. Re­port­edly dis­cov­ered at a Basil­don train sta­tion in Es­sex, about 20 miles from Lon­don, hav­ing a tiff with her boyfriend— with their new­born baby in tow— 17-year-old non-ac­tress Katie Jarvis didn’t have to travel far to re­search the writer-di­rec­tor’s ma­te­rial. Jarvis, it seems, prac­ti­cally lived the role of 15-year-old Mia be­fore shoot­ing be­gan.

Equipped with the in­her­ently hos­tile, frus­tra­tion-bait­ing at­ti­tude born of teenage angst and as­sum­ing a foul mouth and fisticuffs as her pri­mary de­fense mech­a­nisms, Mia at first strikes the pose of a bratty young “Es­sex girl” headed nowhere at warp speed.

She’s fond of the C word, and if she doesn’t like how the neigh­bor­hood girls dance and preen for the boys on the street, she’s not op­posed to in­tro­duc­ing her fre­quently frown-wrin­kled fore­head to one of their pim­ply noses.

Mia’s sin­gle mum, por­trayed mag­nif­i­cently as a booze­bag slut by Es­sex-born ac­tress Kier­ston Ware­ing, isn’t shy about let­ting Mia know she was a mis­take. (Her fad­ing blond-bomb­shell ap­pear­ance im­plies that she, once an Es­sex girl her­self, also had her first child at an un­com­monly early age.) Mia’s lit­tle sis­ter, Tyler (Re­becca Grif­fiths), can cuss and pitch a fit like a sea­soned soc­cer hooli­gan, ren­der­ing the script’s sib­ling ri­valry es­pe­cially ven­omous, al­though even­tu­ally heart­warm­ing.

In the beginning of the film, Mia’s es­cape from her cheer­less do­mes­tic life is hip-hop danc­ing, which she prac­tices alone in an aban­doned flat, with a boom­box nearby or head­phones on, gaz­ing long­ingly be­yond the marshes and col­laps­ing in­dus­trial land­scapes of her home­town. Dressed in gray sweat pants and a match­ing hoodie, she truly re­sem­bles a fish looking through murky glass — trapped, but hold­ing onto some glim­mer of hope, ab­sorb­ing old-school rap tunes, bot­tles of hard cider, and beer in­stead of life-giv­ing wa­ter. But don’t be fooled: this is no 8-Mile rap movie.

Mia’s hope ap­par­ently ar­rives in the form of Con­nor, the hand­some new boyfriend of Mia’s mother, played by Michael Fass­ben­der ( In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds). He is por­trayed ini­tially as a kind, no-non­sense man, a daddy-re­place­ment fig­ure who takes Mia’s in­ter­ests to heart. He helps her pre­pare for a dance au­di­tion by giv­ing her a video cam­era to prac­tice with and takes the con­stantly ar­gu­ing fam­ily on an im­promptu coun­try drive.

How­ever, Con­nor’s kind­ness — and Mia’s vul­ner­a­ble re­ac­tion to it — soon de­volves into some­thing far less sa­vory. Her bur­geon­ing sex­u­al­ity and his sur­face-level in­no­cent charm col­lide in an ex­pect­edly dis­turb­ing way, but the story plays out in a most unan­tic­i­pated fash­ion.

When she’s not pur­su­ing a gig as a hip-hop dancer or cop­ing with Con­nor and her fam­ily is­sues, Mia finds a friend in Billy, a brood­ing neigh­bor­hood car-parts thief played by Harry Treadaway (who por­trayed Joy Divi­sion bassist Stephen Mor­ris in 2007’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed, equally bleak Bri­tish in­die film Con­trol). Af­ter Mia tries to free a horse chained to a con­crete post at Billy’s marsh­land trailer home, the pair bonds over suds and a quick snog. Their friend­ship, and the horse’s fate, serve as mir­rors to their in­su­lar, poverty-stricken ex­is­tence in Es­sex. Billy presents a sense of res­ig­na­tion while main­tain­ing some com­pas­sion for those around him; while Mia, who has been bred by cir­cum­stance to rail against ev­ery­thing in a place that seem­ingly cares about noth­ing, just wants to break free. And the horse ... well, I won’t spoil the film’s most po­etic mo­ment.

Arnold isn’t the first film­maker to com­bine the of­ten un­com­fort­able sub­ject of ado­les­cent sex­ual ten­sion with a grainy and claus­tro­pho­bic vis­ual style; long, awk­ward stretches of high­way-noise-kissed quiet; and care­fully planted mo­ments of slow­mo­tion action. Larry Clark’s 1995 drama Kids, 2001’s L.I.E. (co-star­ring There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano), 2004’s film adap­ta­tion of the “JT LeRoy” book The Heart Is De­ceit­ful Above All Things, and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Pri­vate Idaho, Para­noid Park, and Ele­phant are pre­cur­sors to Fish Tank in this re­gard. Al­though all of th­ese films strain for an air of nat­u­ral­ism through re­laxed di­a­logue and the lib­eral use of hand-held cam­eras, what sets Arnold’s work apart from the oth­ers is her abil­ity to ad­e­quately sex­u­al­ize the ma­te­rial without stoop­ing to pseudo-pe­dophilia or nude un­der­age en­coun­ters. She is a mas­ter at sum­mon­ing a pay­load of raw emo­tion from her well-cho­sen ac­tors, and her cam­era (along with that of Red Road cin­e­matog­ra­pher Rob­bie Ryan, who mans the hand-helds here) man­ages to cap­ture it all.

In an Amer­i­can mar­ket cur­rently flooded with silly-lit­tle-girl films, wannabe-princess re­treads, and the oc­ca­sional eye­brow-lifter per­tain­ing to newly ado­les­cent males, Fish Tank pad­dles against the teen-cen­tric cin­e­matic cur­rent to give a gritty girl a lit­tle time in front of an even grit­tier lens without a heap of the all-too-com­mon gra­tu­itous sex­ual ick fac­tor. It isn’t al­ways pretty to watch, but as it slowly un­veils its naked truths about alien­ation and how lone­li­ness man­i­fests it­self in dif­fer­ent peo­ple, Fish Tank’s un­com­monly dark beauty sinks into your heart— and swims around for awhile.

Close to the edge: Katie Jarvis

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