'Fish Tank' film is fresh British realism
Director Arnold carries on tradition of social realism in coming-of-age tale
Some films make us long to be part of their world. And others, like Andrea Arnold’s "Fish Tank" (IFC Films) – playing through Thursday at The Loft – pull off what is in some ways a more difficult feat: they make us want to pull the film’s characters into our world.
There isn’t much in fifteen-year-old Mia’s life to desire. She lives in a cramped apartment in one of England’s depressing council estates, the equivalent of American public housing projects. Her mother is on the dole, drinks too much and expresses little interest in her two daughters’ state of mind. All Mia has to keep her sane is her portable CD player and the hip-hop dance routines she devises in a vacant flat.
Things begin looking up when Connor, a handsome man, enters her mother’s life. He has money. And a car, which he uses to take the family on a trip to the countryside. But the concern he shows for Mia and her younger sister Tyler, the words and gestures that communicate a caring their mother is too numb to express, soon lead to trouble.
"Fish Tank" – which won the Jury Prize and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival – isn’t the tale of an innocent, though. Mia may not be as mature as she thinks she is, but she is savvy enough to maintain a semblance of control in the most dire circumstances. When two boys act like they intend to rape her, she fights back furiously. And when Connor carries her to her tiny bedroom after she passes out from drinking liquor stolen from her mother’s party downstairs, she opens her eyes just enough to make sure that his good intentions don’t go awry.
Arnold, who also wrote the screenplay, takes pains to reinforce the impression that Mia is no victim. When Connor lends her his video camera so she can make a DVD for a dance audition, she immediately turns it on him in a demonstration of insouciant voyeurism. And later in the film, after she hears her mother making love with him, she steals down the hall and opens the door a crack to watch.
The spectacle disturbs her, as she indicates by slamming the door of her bedroom afterwards, but it also sets in motion a desire with potentially disastrous consequences, one she struggles to cope with even as she devotes herself to more chaste activities like drunken horseplay with the shy brother of her teenage attackers.
Like so many young people her age, Mia desperately wants to be taken for a grown up. But this desire conflicts with her need to receive the mentoring that her mother has failed to provide. The behavior of her pre-pubescent sister, who smokes and uses language that would make a sailor blush, helps the audience understand how difficult it is for Mia to show vulnerability. If she curses at the world, it’s because she feels that her life is cursed.
Towards the end of the film, Mia walks in on her mother dancing, not to the reggae that usually fills the apartment, but one of her daughter’s hip-hop records. Significantly, the track comes from Nas’ highly regarded 1994 debut album "Illmatic:" it’s as old as Mia. As hard as she tries to break free of her mother, they share a preference for music that predates their discovery of the hard facts of life. And they both dance as if they were trying to seduce themselves.
When Mia joins her mother, with Tyler doing her best to keep up, the sight of this damaged family unit briefly brought together by a common passion is incredibly moving. We’ve seen enough to know that the brief armistice will not last. But we also know that this momentary rapprochement, underscored by the relaxed brutality of the song’s lyrics, is all the redemption their claustrophobic world can offer: “Life’s a bitch and then you die; that's why we get high. Cause you never know when you're gonna go.”
This depressing analysis provides a decent summary of "Fish Tank." Although there are moments of crisis in the story, we are reminded over and over that the most difficult thing for Mia to deal with is not pain but its absence. During her family’s brief trip to the countryside with Connor, she wades out into a stream to help him catch a fish. When she emerges from the mire, her foot is bleeding from a cut. And she almost seems pleased. Even an unpleasant sensation can give a taste of freedom.
"Fish Tank" clearly follows in a distinguished tradition of British social realism. The mother-daughter relationship recalls the one in Shelagh Delaney’s play "A Taste of Honey," the female equivalent to the “Angry Young Men” of the 1950s, while the looseness of the script pays homage to director Mike Leigh’s work.
What sets "Fish Tank" apart from these illustrious predecessors are Arnold’s nods to less straightforward modes of storytelling. Mia’s purposeful meandering conjures French director Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic "Mouchette," while the prominence of hip-hop invokes American films like "Menace II Society." Like those pictures, "Fish Tank" is less interested in making a point than it is in exploring characters who are overwhelmed by a sense of pointlessness.
As bleak as that sounds, "Fish Tank" does make room for hope. The way Mia looks at the world, from her experimentation with the video camera to the things she notices during the long walks she takes, imply that she has the potential to escape her surroundings. That’s why her tightly wound personality doesn’t come off as a mere defense mechanism. She may keep her distance because she doesn’t want to get hurt, but she can use it to turn her hurt into art.
Charlie Bertsch has been based in Tucson since 2000. He has written about music, film and books for a variety of publications, including The Oxford American, Zeek, Tikkun, Phoenix New Times and the pioneering internet publication Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, which he helped to found back in 1992. He welcomes your feedback.