Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 03, 2010 5:32 pm 
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Hardscrabble liberation of a teenage girl

(Published on Cinescene.)

Fish Tank's bare-bones portrait of an obstreperous girl seduced by her mother's boyfriend blows away the similarly themed An Education with its simple authentic feel and beautiful images. Katie Jarvis as Mia certainly equals Carry Mulligan's performance as Jenny in An Education -- and then some, because this movie has an authenticity Lone Scherfig's theatrical period piece never achieves. Andrea Arnold's second film is a triumph of realistic film-making in the English tradition of Loach, Leigh, Shane Meadows and all the others. It never pushes an agenda and never hits a wrong note. Its simple, seamless technique makes all its basic elements come forth clearly and distinctly.

Mia (Jarvis, outstanding in her first film role) is a combative, scrawny, but not un-pretty 15-year-old who lives with her party-hardy bleach-blond single mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and astonishingly foul-mouthed little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) on a noisy Essex council estate. She's neglected and ostracized, but seeks company. Joanne brings home a handsome, chiseled Irishman called Conner (Michael Fassbinder) and from the minute he comes downstairs, shirtless, to make tea, it's obvious Mia is interested. He's also polite and nice with her. But unlike the slimebag played by Peter Sarsgaard in Lone Scherfig's slick An Education, he doesn't seem a charmer, only a decent fellow who answers Mia's feistiness with kindness.

Mia's life is simple. She's been kicked out of school. She likes to drink and she's upset about a horse chained up across the field, and likes to practice hip hop or street dancing in an empty flat upstairs. The film is equally uncomplicated, framed in old-fashioned square TV style aspect ratio (1.33:1), without background music. The rhythm is established by short scenes, ending with the sound of a car or a door slamming or Mia running off somewhere. This is film-making so authentic and minimal it may seem banal. After a while, maybe not till it has run its substantial (124-minute) length, you may realize how well the people emerge because nothing has been allowed to get in the way of them. Nothing is prettied up here. But there's no miserablism either. The skies aren't cloudy. Though this is kitchen sink social realism, the clear, bright images by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, avoiding the graininess of a conventional vérité style, really sing.

In fact the flat Mia lives in is bright and pastel-y, some key scenes are shot through red or amber filters, and outdoors the skies are luminous. There is no gray here. Events don't turn tragic, though when Mia tries to take revenge on Conner for abandoning her and her mum after he's seduced her, it seems for a little while that they might. And all three females in the house are equally feisty and indomitable. So after the seduction, and after a tacky dance audition goes nowhere, it's not surprising that Mia still seems destined to survive and even thrive.

There are a few key sequences, each deftly shot. Early on there is an outing where Conner, who is a security guard at a large warehouse and owns a car, takes Joanne, Mia, and Tyler out to a marshland stream on an outing. Somehow a camera has been fitted inside the car and shows us the four people, and their expressions when Conner, a soul music fan, introduces them all, but especially Mia, to his favorite song, Bobby Womack singing "California Dreamin'."

At the stream, Conner shows he can catch a fish with his bare hands. He persuades Mia to wade into the water to coral the fish toward him. Joanne and Tyler see her willingness to do this as another sign of her outsider wildness. She cuts her ankle doing it, and Conner carries her. This creates an intimacy that changes their relationship.

Her concern for the tethered horse leads her to meet the horse owner's milder brother Billy (Harry Treadaway), who takes her to a car junkyard to find a spare part for a Volvo. He finds it and says she's brought him luck. This connection saves her from being mired in the other ones, and from being bogged down by what happens with Conner. The sequence in which she tracks him down and finds out his secrets is disturbing, but neither Mia nor the film has any time for sentimentality or complaints.

The film's focus on a relatively unformed character is made more interesting because of the imminence of danger and adventure in Mia's day-to-day life. Perhaps she's not so unformed after all, since she's so able to live by her wits. In this case, unlike An Education, she has no middle-class support system to protect -- or betray -- her. Instead she apparently runs away with Billy. The final sequence is as memorable and beautiful as anything else in Fish Tank. Though it's morning Joanne is half drunk as usual, and dreamily dancing downstairs to Mia's Nas CD. Not seeming to understand Mia's departure may be decisive, Joanne just says "You better get going." Instead of a goodbye, Mia lines up beside her mum and sways to the music with her; they imitate each other's moves, then Tyler holds onto Mia's waist and tries to move with them. It's a typically simple, but magic moment, and so is Tyler's emotional goodbye outside when they both grab each other in a tight embrace and say "I hate you!" to each other.

Arnold won her second Jury Prize at Cannes for Fish Tank; she won the same award in 2006 for her first feature film, Red Road. Fish Tank opened in the UK in September 2009, and in the US in January 2010. This one puts Andrea Arnold clearly in the first rank of contemporary English film-makers.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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