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