If the movies have taught you that all British people are stifled by too much politeness, strangled by the many social ties that bind them, Andrea Arnold’s new film has a lesson for you.
Filmed entirely on location – mostly on a council estate, i.e. the projects – Fish Tank takes its time to establish the gritty, utterly charmless environment in which teenager Mia (Jarvis) lives her daily life practically without social ties. She’s like a modern scavenger, and only her very basic survival needs are being taken care of. Any higher organization beyond immediate family takes place far at the borders of Mia’s existence: she has no friends, she doesn’t go to school, and only once do we see an ineffectual social worker. And she has no problem with speaking her mind in very drastic language.
Mia’s days are spent walking through the projects where she lives. Her pace is that of a determined person, but since at 16, she is going nowhere, her speed merely serves to wind her up, like a mechanical toy, and it doesn’t take much for all that pent-up energy to explode. There’s no need to guess what she’s thinking about the world, and about her mother in particular (as the film progresses, there are an increasing number of indications that the source of their hatred lies in the fact that they are more alike one another than either would like to admit).
Neither the world nor her mother have anything to offer Mia. Arnold never tries to even pretend that it’s possible to get inside the girl’s head, and the ploy to use a non-professional to play her protagonist – someone who didn’t need a carefully scripted background story – really pays off here. Mia seems so hardened that it comes as a surprise when the sheer presence of her mom’s new boyfriend manages to soften her. Connor (Fassbender) comes from another world (almost literally, as it turns out), and slowly Mia realizes that if she wants to escape, she can only rely on herself to do it.
FISH TANK | Directed by Andrea Arnold (UK 2009) with Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender. Opens in Berlin cinemas on September 23.