Fish Tank (IFC Films, NR)

While Fish Tank isn’t completely flawless, its excellent handling of the complex relationship between characters makes it stand out.

My favorite film of 2009 was Lone Scherfig’s An Education, which is about a sixteen-year-old who gets into a complicated relationship with a thirtysomething man. A few days into 2010 I first saw Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which feels amazingly much like an indie version of An Education—as if Fish Tank came out first (it didn’t; An Education had its world premiere at Sundance in January 2009; Fish Tank had its world premiere at Cannes in May 2009), was deemed too rough-around-the-edges for American audiences, and a Hollywood remake of it was staged in the form of An Education. I generally like rough-around-the-edges better than glossy, so it stands to reason I would like Fish Tank better than An Education. As of this writing that isn’t the case, but it seems reasonable to think that after giving each film a few more screenings each, Fish Tank might best An Education in the long run.

The protagonist of Fish Tank is the 15-year-old juvenile delinquent Mia, who is played amazingly well by newcomer and non-professional Katie Jarvis, whom Arnold invited to a casting call after seeing her yelling at her boyfriend on a train platform. After getting into some trouble in the first reel Mia finds out that she’s being sent to boarding school, to get her out of trouble, and, more importantly, out of her young party animal mom’s (Kierston Wareing) hair. Mia has two methods of escape from her no-prospect life—she enjoys dancing, specifically hip hop-style dancing, which she practices alone in an abandoned building and secretly hopes to make a career of, and also her mom (generally referred to in the movie by her first name, Joanne, as if she and Mia were sisters) brings home a new boyfriend named Connor (rising star and excellent actor Michael Fassbender, who you perhaps recognize from Hunger or Inglourious Basterds, and who here looks remarkably like Matthew McConaughey, maybe because he wanders around half the time without a shirt) who serves as something between a crush and a father figure for Mia. Connor’s appearance makes life better for every member of the all-girl family; even Mia’s foul-mouthed little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) likes him, telling him shortly after their first meeting, “I like you. I’ll kill you last.”

While Fish Tank isn’t completely flawless (Mia’s trying to free a tied up horse is far too transparent a metaphor), its excellent handling of the complex relationship between Connor and Mia (or Connor and Joanne, or Connor and Tyler, for that matter) makes it stand out, as do the performances by Jarvis and Fassbender. In the opening scene, as well as a few other key scenes, Jarvis has to dance, and watch the way she does it—she seems much more like a young girl trying really hard and doing pretty well than a professional dancer, which is how similar scenes like this in any other movie ever have come off. It probably helps that Jarvis herself is no dancer, and reportedly felt funny about doing it on camera. There’s a certain realism that only non-professional actors can seem to attain, and Jarvis hits it dead-on. Fish Tank couldn’t be better off for it. | Pete Timmermann
 

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