Andrea Arnold does something kind of astonishing in Fish Tank, simultaneously paying homage to a long line of British cinema — from the kitchen sink films of Lindsay Anderson to the social realism of Ken Loach — while blazing her own trail. Fish Tank feels eminently familiar in a number of scenes, but the scenes coalesce into a film with its own texture and rhythms.
Arnold is greatly aided by Katie Jarvis, the effortlessly natural and explosive actress who stars as main character Mia. Jarvis was discovered in public by a casting director who saw her fighting with her boyfriend and here, she brings qualities of both a non-professional actor and a born performer to her first role. She’s in nearly every frame of the film, and possesses a magnetism that seems to force the camera to stay put on the kinetic energy she spontaneously gives off.
The film takes place in and around tenement housing in Essex, where 15-year-old Mia lives with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), a foul-mouthed riff on the precocious youngster archetype. To call Joanne a bad mother might be too generous, as she seems to have no conception of what the position entails, allowing her children to drink freely and either berating them or ignoring them as her mood fits.
Mia’s world is bleak, but Fish Tank avoids becoming excessively downbeat due to the character of Mia herself, who projects attitude into every situation she finds herself in and hangs onto her dream of becoming a dancer. The film opens with her breathing heavily, coming down from the high of dancing in her room, and the lensing of the scene matches her intensity. Arnold frequently puts us up-close-and-personal with Mia, either filling the frame with her or with what she sees.
Mia has irrepressible spunk, but there’s no denying the miserable elements of her existence, which are all around her. It’s no secret that her dancing abilities will hardly be enough to remove her from this life.
And yet Mia’s life begins to shift with the arrival of Connor (Michael Fassbender), Joanne’s boyfriend who seems to just become part of the family’s life one day. Fassbender plays the part perfectly, constantly shifting between a sense of menace and a sense of kindness, and Mia is sucked into his orbit by the humanity he injects into her life.