The story of the discovery of Katie Jarvis, the young breakout star of Fish Tank, is so wholly apropos and cute that it seems too good to be true. Apparently, a talent scout for the film spotted the then 16-year-old yelling and swearing at her boyfriend across some train tracks at a subway station in Essex. Jarvis allegedly rebuffed the scout’s advances, telling her off in disbelief and storming off, before eventually being convinced to audition and accept the part. A happy accident all around, since this is exactly the sort of girl – stroppy, foul mouthed, abrasive - director Andrea Arnold was looking for, and this is exactly what we get when Jarvis storms onto the screen.
In Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold’s second full length feature after the stunning Red Road, Jarvis, who had never acted before, plays Mia, a stroppy, foul mouthed, abrasive 15-year-old. She spends her days either stalking around the public housing tenement where she lives with her mother and sister; wandering aimlessly around the streets of Essex; or practicing hip hop dance in an abandoned apartment. Jarvis’ performance – at turns aggressively belligerent and coyly vulnerable, but always raw – is so achingly genuine that you wonder how much of it is actually acting, and how much is just her. It’s a tour de force, to be sure, especially from a new comer, but you wonder if it’s actually just her life.
Indeed, aside from some heavy handed symbolism and a late third act melodramatic twist that almost undermines the rest of the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Fish Tank is a documentary, if you came upon it unawares. Shot almost entirely on hand held cameras that stalk Jarvis for the entirety of its run time (she’s on screen for the entire 122-minutes), and framed in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio so she is always at the center of the shot, the film has a pronounced verite feel, a window into a brutal, unforgiving reality among the British poor as seen through the eyes of one of its lost, listless young.
Following in the British tradition of “kitchen sink” social realism pioneered by Ken Loach and continued by early Mike Leigh, Arnold’s film is uncompromising and unsentimental in its portrayal of Mia’s world, a world of life on the dole, of life on the bottle, of life at the end of the road. Mia’s mother (Kierston Wareing) – who doesn’t look much older than a teenager herself, and probably had Mia when she was Mia’s age – leads a selfish, slovenly life as a drunken party girl, who sees her two spawn as inconveniences at best. Mia’s younger sister, an equally foul mouthed little brat, is already smoking and boozing at what looks to be the ripe old age of eight.
Mia seems to be doing no better – she has no friends, is a high school dropout, has no job, and spends her days drinking, attacking other girls in the housing project, or screaming at her mother and sister. She does her best to make it impossible to like her – and yet it is impossible to turn away from her.
What little plot there is at first comes from the introduction of mom’s new boyfriend, a hunky, lazily sexy ne’er-do-well named Connor (Michael Fassbender), who quickly shacks up in their flat. Mia’s obvious attraction to him runs from a dull ache early on to a steadier thrum as the film rolls on, her face a wash of sexual confusion whenever she is near Connor. We know where this is headed, even if Mia doesn’t entirely. The film almost toys with us, making us think it’s going to be a sort of generic sexual awakening sort of piece, a coming of age drama – which it is, except there are no grand life lessons learned, no sudden understanding, no revelatory glance into adulthood.
That’s the curious thing about Fish Tank, and what is part of its power. Though the camera basically has us in Mia’s face (or Mia in ours) the entire time – stalking her over her shoulder, or trying to catch up with her as she tries to run away from her life – we never get in her head. We think we can figure things out from her face, from her body language, but we never see anything crystallize. Watching her we are awash in the same roiling, inchoate emotions that are welling up inside of her. There is no self-awareness in Mia—she is all instinct, intuition, and lashing out. There is a vestige of hope buried somewhere, and we cling to it as she does, but we feel, without knowing exactly, that she is slowly drowning, chained down and trapped like a fish in a… well, and here’s where we run into a problem.
Arnold is such a supremely confident director, that it really pains me that her script resorts to some rather heavy handed and obvious animal metaphors to reinforce what Jarvis is more than capable of conveying herself. Early on, Mia comes across an old, emaciated grey horse chained up in a junk yard. She repeatedly tries to free it, only to be chased off each time by the punks who are squatting there. At another key moment, Connor catches a fish during a little “family” outing to a river, and Arnold draws close in on the fish gasping for life on the shore. This is stuff out of Student Film 101, and would be laughable if the rest of the film weren’t so assured and brilliant. (See also the very last shot of the film, which boasts an unfortunate use of a very symbolic balloon drifting over the Essex housing ghetto. If only the film had just ended 10 seconds sooner, we’d have a masterpiece on our hands).
Also late in the game, Arnold resorts to a melodramatic plot… well, not twist, but event that is surprising for its petulance. It threatens to sink the film, and turn Fish Tank from a powerful character study into a laughable tragedy, but luckily disaster is averted in the nick of time. Mia comes through the ordeal still clinging to hope, only to awaken the next day to further dashed dreams when her dance audition, the only thing in life she was looking forward to, doesn’t go quite the way she expected it to. Her escape in the last minutes of the film seems desperate, not exactly hopeful, but more about getting the hell out of the hopeless hell she is living in now, if nothing else.
Fish Tank is both tough and easy to recommend. It’s not a particularly enjoyable film, but it has a certain hypnotic pull to it, and Jarvis is especially electrifying. It’s harsh, but not unduly brutal – Jarvis and Arnold refuse to wallow in the misery of Mia’s life—and a second viewing, knowing what is coming, is better for truly appreciating what Jarvis does here (since the entirety of the first time I saw this I was expecting some sort of Lars von Trier-esque type of brutal martyrdom of Mia, which Arnold never succumbs to). Though set in the dreary public housing tenements of Essex, surrounded by warehouses and junkyards, there is a stark beauty to the film, Arnold isolating quiet moments of beauty amidst the desolation. She has an obvious talent for effortlessly honing in on key details of a setting to reinforce what’s in the foreground, and it works to her advantage here.
She also has a great ear, too – though the film has no nondigetic soundtrack (to maintain its verite illusion), the songs that Mia listens and dances to are an excellent cross section of early to mid-‘90s hip hop. The key song though, which Connor introduces and is a refrain returned to three times, is Bobby Womack’s incendiary, soul inflected cover of “California Dreamin’”. His version – horn drenched and a bit faster than the Mamas and Papas’ – is aching and sexy, a yearning not just for escape but a consummation. It’s no wonder that it accompanies the key seduction scene lying at the film’s center.
I remember being haunted by this song for weeks after seeing it the first time. After this second viewing, though, the song that sticks with me the most is Nas’s stone cold classic “Life’s a Bitch”, which runs under the final scene between Mia, her sister and mother, in which they briefly dance together before Mia leaves home. It’s such a sweet, innocent moment, unlike any other in the film (so much so that it seems that it’s from another film entirely), Nas’s lyrics acting as the grand (and obvious) summation of everything we just saw (it also plays again over the credits) and where Mia is headed.
Criterion’s DVD release of Fish Tank is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the inclusion of three of Arnold’s short films (one of which, Wasp, she won an Oscar for in 2004) are essential. Here we see the evolution of a talent that seemed to arrive fully formed with Red Road. The films display the same concern with lower class, female protagonists and sexuality, and while obviously not as brilliant as the features to come, display the hallmarks that would make these films so brilliant.
Aside from an interview with Kierston Wareing, there is very little background, behind the scenes information here. Wareing does go into a little bit of detail about Arnold’s style and methods (for instance, the film was shot sequentially and the script handed out piecemeal for each day, the better to keep the actors in the dark and on their toes), but the director herself is glaringly absent from all the proceedings. No commentary track, no interviews. I can’t figure out if this was conscious on Arnold’s part, or whether Criterion just put together what they had available, but I’m guessing the former. While disappointing, it also add to the mystique of Arnold, who has quickly become one of most exciting directors to watch coming out of the UK.