Why We Get High
“You dance like a black. It’s a compliment.” Connor (Michael Fassbender), watching from the kitchen door as Mia (Katie Jarvis) mimics the moves before her in an Ashanti and Ja Rule video, seems impressed. The girl is 15, sullen and skinny, but she works hard on her dancing, and to him, it shows. She’s seen a few videos, and so imagines that dancing will be her ticket out of the council flat where she lives with her miserable mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and suitably confused younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Connor’s approval irks her in a kneejerk sort of way, but also confirms her guess that she has valuable skills.
That both Mia and Connor gauge this value by what they see on TV is no small irony. In Fish Tank, director Andrea Arnold’s follow-up to her mesmerizing Red Road, the primary and much-repeated point is that limited vision is costly. (Indeed, the views from windows recall Red Road‘s frequent, very similar shots.) As Mia first appears in the movie, rehearsing her dance steps alone, then looking out a window onto bleak council yard, then walks across the yard and across dilapidated streets, the camera hovers behind her. The view is close, her world is confined, and no matter how fast and furiously she walks, she has nowhere to go.
Mia’s constraints are derived from her mother’s, though neither would admit as much. An early scene intimates just how difficult their relationship has turned, as Mia looks out from her bedroom to see Joanne in the kitchen, herself dancing in her underwear, pleased after an apparently gratifying night with Connor. Mia, having revealed in a previous scene with her friends/classmates that she is a demanding judge of dancing, here apprises her mother silently, though her taut profile suggests she’s not pleased, though you can only guess whether she sees Joanne as a competitor, a good dancer or a bad one, or all of the above.
As Fish Tank goes on to show, Mia sees her options poorly. If Joanne is a careless and frankly jealous mother, rejecting both Tyler and Mia as, essentially, too much trouble, Connor seems at first a supportive adult. He appears occasionally and then increasingly, inviting the girls along on a drive to the country, tending to a small but bloody injury to Mia’s ankle, eyeing her with a mix of fatherly (or maybe brotherly) affection and a yuckier sort of lust. Joanne misses these looks, willfully or not, and tends to pose her own angular form in ways that are less seductive than aggressive. Repeatedly and recklessly modeling abjection and desire, Joanne provides Mia with multiple reasons to want out. That said, Mia is reluctant to take up the choice Joanne offers—a referral unit, for kids the state deems in need of structure. (Tyler articulates the basic trouble with this option, as “full of spastics and idiots, those places.”)
Outside the flat, Mia finds a big fat metaphor for her sense of self, a scrawny gray horse chained to a rock in a trailer park. After an unsuccessful attempt to free the animal—she slams the chain with a brick, the camera heaving up and down to follow her effort—she returns to see the horse. At first she’s assaulted by a set of thuggish brothers who claim to own the horse, then she meets a younger brother, Billy (Harry Treadaway), who protests the horse’s emaciation is “not what you think.” It’s old, he explains, and they do feed it. Mia is inclined to disbelieve, and also to seek friendship even with boys who live in trailers. But their “dates” are predictably premised on drinking and pilfering (car parts) and having sex, none of it interesting, except when she can flaunt her “bad” (expected and typical) behavior in front of Joanne and Connor.
When Connor encourages Mia to follow up on a “dream” of hers, namely, to mail out a recording of herself dancing in order to get an audition, the film looks almost to be leaning into Save the Last Dance‘s territory. Mia’s talents and his interests seem to come together when he introduces her to Bobby Womack’s cover of “California Dreaming,” which she takes to heart and uses to choreograph her audition dance. He also lends her a video camera to make the recording, leading to some striking imagery, screens that recall the windows and mirrors and doorways that confine all Mia’s views, even as she creates the image inside this frame.
In fact, Mia misreads most everything in front of her, from Ashanti to Connor (she may have her mother’s shortcomings right, or at least the movie implies as much). And so Mia is bound to be disappointed and respond to that disappointment naïvely, her rage quite frighteningly directed at a much younger girl, another rather obvious metaphor who appears in a cheap princess dress. She’s a girl Mia might have wanted to be but can’t identify with—until they are both afraid, desperately and quite brutally.
But even as the film tells a familiar story, it does so in striking, visually resonant ways. The mobile frame is always slightly off, as Mia misunderstands and as she also eludes understanding. Her surroundings are bleak, the sky gray, the sidewalks broken. That she’s unable to articulate most of what she wants, or can only phrase it in terms she’s seen elsewhere. This is the film’s most effective strategy, to indict images that inculcate desire in images that do not.