Written by: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths
Not everyone gets to have the cushy lifestyle where education remains a priority and parents give their kids plenty of love. Some have a much more complicated upbringing, which directly impacts a cycle that perpetuates the same behaviors. Fish Tank presents an unfavorable scenario for a young girl and what it takes to break out of it through incredibly visceral filmmaking and a stunning performance by its lead.
Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother (Kierston Wareing) and little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in an undesirable apartment complex and has dreams to make it big as a dancer. As she finds the right opportunity, she begins to bond with her mom’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender) who shows more belief in her than anyone else.
The lifestyle Mia has been dealt would not be envied by many seeing as she has a strongly antagonistic relationship with everyone around her. The second anyone falls out of favor with her, she’ll make sure to let them know exactly how she feels about them with the use of every expletive you could conjure. This abrasiveness comes directly as a result of the world around her as becomes evident when seeing how she interacts with her mother and the lack of support coming from the only major adult figure in her life. When the mother wants to have friends over for some drinking and dancing, she tells her two daughters to either stay upstairs or leave the apartment entirely. A parent should have their fun but to the extent where it comes off as being neglectful to her children, it begins to cross a line.
Mia’s relationship with her mother plays an essential part as to why she begins to bond with her mother’s new boyfriend Conner. Even barely knowing Mia, he shows a level of support no other person has ever provided where it becomes a bit jarring. The conversations with him do not quickly devolve into a battle of who can yell the most expletives to the other in a concise amount of time. It allows her the opportunity to connect with another person for the first time in her life, which only makes what their relationship becomes all the more tragic. Fish Tank tells a coming of age story but not one many would look back on with fondness due to the pain Mia endures on an emotional level. It further contributes to what makes this such melancholic story with bits and pieces of limited but joyous moments of euphoria.
Passion only shows up for Mia in the world of dance where she gets to express herself in ways she cannot around others. It provides a release and throughout the feature, it remains a practice she holds in private spaces where others cannot watch. Hip hop becomes the music she mostly gets drawn to and her dancing cannot be described as good. While not being an excellent dancer myself, comparing what Mia can do to professionals displays she has a long way to go if she hopes to make it some type of career. It becomes a cringe experience watching her dance but it cannot be taken away from her seeing as it serves as her only healthy release. The rest of her life has her chained to a mother who could care less about her, a living environment stunting her growth, and the only thing bringing her any semblance of happiness remains the act of dancing. In moments where she cannot even enjoy this simple act truly shows where she hits rock bottom.
Taking a look at modern England outside of the posh upper-class areas, Fish Tank shows a part of the nation where people live paycheck to paycheck in order to live their lives. No one in this area speaks in the “acceptable” accents England loves to export to other nations. The parks and street corners carry plenty of trash and genuinely feels like such a real place, further informing what makes this an integral factor to Mia’s upbringing. This area certainly may not be foreign to native Brits but it runs directly opposite of what gets presented in media typically, which makes the experience of following Mia’s journey through this area genuinely refreshing and authentic.
In a first-time role, Katie Jarvis absolutely knocks it out of the park with the performance by putting forth the rough exterior of this character along with the genuinely touching moments she shares. Jarvis nails the moments where she allows her defenses to be put down if only for a brief second. She does it all with her face and then goes on the expletive-filled diatribes with as much grace as would be possible with this role. This film also serves as one of Michael Fassbender’s earliest roles where he puts on such a warmly harmful role that only gets more uncomfortable as the film goes on. Jarvis goes toe-to-toe with him and genuinely outshines him.
Andrea Arnold, as a filmmaker, never holds back with the type of stories she wants to tell. She shows what she wants to and does it with a respectful amount of discernment in order to drive down the narrative and thematic elements of her features. Her style of visceral filmmaking remains her own in such a refreshing way where it becomes obvious you’re watching something made by Andrea Arnold. Through this work and her others, she seeks to display provoking imagery and story points because she works in reality. She tells stories about women not typically highlighted in the media and has no qualms in displaying the ugliness their lives can provide even with their yearning for beauty. Scintillating work on her part and the best thing she has created thus far.
Fish Tank will hit like a ton of bricks once its meandering plot nails down the exact emotional reaction it expects from its audience. It warns against having too much faith in role models and how someone you can grow an attachment to can harm you in unimaginable ways. Nothing about this feature can be described as a comfortable viewing experience, which may put off some but that’s life. It has ugly moments that cannot be escaped and must be reckoned with, which happens to this teenage girl.