With moviegoers sporting 3D glasses, watching billion dollar blockbusters, it’s inevitable that many "small" films go completely unnoticed. The unfortunate fact is, however, that several of these unseen works are far more precious than any ridiculous budget can buy.
Fish Tank, a British socio-realist drama by Academy Award-winning director Andrea Arnold, is one of these hidden gems.
Starring newcomer Katie Jarvis, the film tells the story of Mia (Jarvis), a rebellious and foulmouthed 15-year-old living in a modern slum of London with her self-absorbed mother (Kierston Wareing) and nagging little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Amid fighting, drinking and other destructive behavior, she escapes her wasteland by dancing in an abandoned flat.
But Mia’s world is turned upside down when her mother starts dating Connor (Michael Fassbender), a warm and jovial security guard, who, unlike her mom’s past boyfriends, seems to actually care about the family.
She is initially uncomfortable around Connor: Having no men in her life, she doesn’t know how to respond to his affection and attempted discipline. So being the confused and unstable adolescent she is, Mia naturally takes a liking to the charmer. Though despite misplaced emotions, her life begins to be transformed through the presence of a man who actually cares. For the first time ever, she is encouraged to be herself and to follow her dreams and aspirations.
The buoyant circumstances are, nonetheless, ephemeral and simply too ideal for Mia’s entrapment: Connor ultimately fails to live up to his perceived character, as he is hiding a shameful secret. And, to sum it up but not spoil it, the seemingly redemptive tale suddenly turns bleak.
While the plot appears cynical, there is hope in Fish Tank. Mia nevertheless remains in a battered and broken state, but through her struggles a lucid reality of human nature is exposed—the insuppressible desire to be loved—and although she only experiences adoration fleetingly, it affects her greatly. We see this manifested in a family dance scene near the film’s end. Mia’s encounter with Connor, despite its brevity and his uncertain intentions, allows her to feel loved, at least momentarily.
Interestingly enough, Katie Jarvis had no previous acting experience before Fish Tank. Arnold inadvertently witnessed the teen fighting with her boyfriend on a train platform and felt she’d be a solid fit for the part. Boy was she right. Her performance is entirely spectacular and unforgettable; she is perfectly raw and real. There are segments in which you will forget you’re watching a movie because of her validity and sincerity.
Michael Fassbender also puts on an outstanding performance as Connor, carefully mastering the character of an amiable family man who, regardless of his many shortcomings, seems to harbor some form of fatherly love for Mia. With this persona and his recent role in Inglourious Basterds, Fassbender is proving to be quite an actor.
Among nearly flawless performances, the movie’s cinematography—courtesy of Robbie Ryan—is mesmerizing, adding to its effectiveness significantly. It’s shot in a 1.33 aspect ratio, which rightfully captures the gloominess of the setting and its characters—also giving the film a square and clustered appearance. Ryan and Arnold’s naturalistic technique is an essential element of the film’s convincing authenticity.
There’s much to be said about a work of art that accurately portrays reality. Most films that do are depressing and despondent. Fish Tank is the exception: Arnold and her cast have created a powerful movie that possesses hope while still remaining genuine.
Fish Tank is available through IFC OnDemand starting today. Click here to see if your cable provider carries IFC OnDemand.