Fish Tank (2009)

Written & Directed by Andrea Arnold

Fish Tank marks the second effort from British writer/director Andrea Arnold, however it marks the first appearance from young actress Katie Jarvis, who has the privilge of working along side the fantastic British actor Michael Fassbender in this depressingly gritty family drama. Although only her second feature film, Arnold is not new to the scene, winning an Academy Award in 2005 for her short Wasp. Katie Jarvis, on the other hand, was discovered by a talent scout after having a row with her boyfriend in a railway station, according to her Wikipedia page. However it happened, Jarvis is a raw talent who gets the chance to shine in Arnold’s Fish Tank; and she takes great advantage of it.

Jarvis plays 15-year-old Mia who lives with her mother, who she hates, and her little sister. It is apparent in the opening moments of the film that Mia is a bitter and rebellious person, as she confronts a a group of girls her own age and ends the confrontation by head butting one of them. But we soon see a lighter side of the violent Mia as she tries to free a horse from its chains in an apparently abandoned lot. But she soon must wrestle her way from two men who physically harass her. This is a girl with a lot of attitude and a lot of fight in her. So when Connor (Fassbender) shows up as her mother’s new boyfriend, it looks like he might be just the man she needs in her life to set her on the straight and narrow. She likes urban dance and is quite good at it. He encourages her. He also is able to channel her scornful ways into some less violent and more productive activities. It is apparent that he has taken a liking to her and she to him, but the question becomes just how will Connor be able to change the life of Mia. And if/when he does, will it be for the best, because all may not be what it seems from the mysterious new boyfriend Connor.

At surface level, Fish Tank is a simple film with few characters and settings and a less than intricate plot. But what makes the film an interesting work is the complexity that boils under the surface, and I think that can best be stated by the performances here. Jarvis and Fassbender have great on screen presence, especially together, but their subtle approach and use of body language really sells both Mia’s angst and pent-up aggression and Connor’s loving, caring mystery. All the credit in the world should go to writer/director Andrea Arnold for being able to fully envision this story with these actors into the finished product we have on screen.

A few things did catch my eye otherwise, however. First, I noticed that the aspect ratio of the film was much lower, making the picture much boxier and less widescreen than most releases today. I cannot say it was a bad touch on the film, but it was something that I immediately noticed and continued to notice. I would be curious to learn why Arnold decided to film the movie in such an aspect ratio because it did take me out of the experience from time to time, though it was interesting to see something different. Another thing I noted while watching the film was the fact that some of the characters seemed to be caricatures. For instance the mother of the family seemed too scripted to believe. I understand these types of people and stories do exist in the world and it is very sad to know they exist, but like Precious from a few years ago, the situation almost seems so terrible and dire for its own good at times. Now, these times are few and far between and I think I am stretching to find things I didn’t like about the film. And I would have no problem admitting that the film does these “caricatures” and terrible situations extremely well.

Despite the strange aspect ratio, Fish Tank was photographed extremely beautifully and the cinematography was certainly one of the major attractions of the film, along with the great performance by Katie Jarvis. Its bleakness and slice of life type story may not bring me back for more in the future, though that becomes more of a personal thing than a viable criticism, but Fish Tank is definitely worth checking out at least once because it is a very well made film with plenty to offer.

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