While I doubt most of us can claim to come from the same circumstances as Mia, the rough-around-the-edges protagonist of Andrea Arnold’s 2009 coming-of-age film Fish Tank, I’m sure most of us can at least empathize on a spiritual or philosophical level with her eventual need to reach for something better in her life. That sense of identification isn’t in place to make us realize that even the very poor have hopes and dreams; it’s about linking in to Mia’s basic humanity. Rather than pompously trod through the council estates of East London, observing the lives of the poor for personal gain, Arnold instead yields a very matter-of-fact slice of life in which her heroine not only strives to break out of the cycle of her existence but also grow into womanhood. Details aside, that struggle is universal and human. By extension, so too is Fish Tank.
The film’s title presumably refers to the suffocating bubble Mia inhabits; she doesn’t see much of the world outside of the flat she shares with her younger sister and abusive, neglectful mother and the areas immediately outside of her housing. It’s a limited, narrow landscape. Harsh realities of her home life aside, no one could blame her for wanting to escape– which is where the film’s title may find its other meaning. We quickly learn that Mia spends much of her spare time in an abandoned flat practicing hip-hop dancing as she listens to artists like Nas. The transformation she takes in these moments is staggering; Mia never looks more alive than when she’s practicing her b-girl stance. In other moments, she simply exists, as though she’s waiting for the next opportunity to work on her moves and really live.
It’s not until Connor (Michael Fassbender) comes along that her life experiences something by way of a catalyst for change, however. It’s made apparent quickly that Connor is dating Mia’s mom, but Mia doesn’t care in the slightest. If anything their relationship makes him more interesting to her. As she gamely tries to impress the charming Irishman at every opportunity, labors to improve her dancing, and eventually comes to pursue a Welsh traveler closer to her age, Mia’s coming of age comes into full bloom amid the dingy apathy of her world.
At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, Fish Tank teems with life. I realize that this clashes with the proposed notion that Mia soldiers through life with aggressive listlessness in between the time she spends dancing and flirting with Connor. But Mia’s not emotionally dead when she’s not engaging in the activities that best display her spark of life; she’s just angry, and she deals with the world using her anger as a filtering lens. Her rage, however, does not completely define who she is, and we only ever see the real Mia in those situations where she’s most at ease and most comfortable. (Or, in the case of her dealings with Connor, vulnerable.) And when she’s sparring with her mom or dressing down neighborhood girls with their own dancing aspirations, Mia’s most certainly alive. She’s just not being Mia.
Mia’s emotional walls aside, though, Fish Tank is vivacious and alive in every single frame. In point of fact I believe that to be part of Fish Tank‘s purpose; Mia’s relentless external ire and her internal meekness and insecurity over her talents and her chances at succeeding at dancing put her in a place wherein life passes her by constantly. When she responds to an advertisement expressing a need for dancers, it’s the first time in the film that she actually takes a positive step forward in her life. The rest of the time, she simply hides herself and keeps everyone in her life (even her sister, whom she clearly loves) at arm’s length while the beat of the world hums around her.
As Mia, Katie Jarvis is something of a revelation. While Fish Tank was released before Michael Fassbender began his dominant streak in mainstream and indie cinema alike, it’s worth praising any amateur talent for holding their own against him in scene after scene, which Jarvis does effortlessly. Like the character she portrays, she feels tragically real, and there’s a chance that there’s something of Mia in Jarvis herself– or perhaps vice versa. Mia’s self-defeating, self-isolating behavior is the sort that reads as infuriating on the page but feels far more sympathetic through performance; she’s a product of her surroundings, but more importantly she’s far more fragile and human than she lets on.
Fassbender, for what it’s worth, is every bit as charming as anyone who’s seen him act would expect him to be. Connor’s the antithesis of what Mia has come to expect from adults in her life; he’s kind, patient, understanding, surprisingly cool in every sense of the word. Coupled with his handsomeness, it’s easy to see how Mia might develop a crush on him. That in and of itself presents something of a moral dilemma for both characters, particularly Connor as the story continues developing. What’s fascinating is that amidst Mia’s own confused feelings and Connor’s guilt-tempered desire, Fish Tank avoids lasciviousness; as much as we may regard their flirting as being inappropriate (which it certainly is), it never reads as exploitative or dirty. Largely, this comes down to rapport and chemistry. Fassbender and Jarvis feel natural on-screen together, and their performances constitute Fish Tank‘s highest points.
The entire movie, though, is composed of high points. In Fish Tank Arnold has created both one of the most essential contemporary neo-realist films of its decade, and a superlative youth-in-trouble film. It’s a picture that gestates slowly; at first, Mia seems to nearly revel in her circumstances. At the very least she doesn’t acknowledge that her life is one worth improving. But Fish Tank ultimately becomes a journey along Mia’s path to deciding she wants to be anywhere but East End. Arriving at that conclusion proves bittersweet between her pride and remorse and grief, resulting something all too believable and real that’s both hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time.