Director: Andrea Arnold
Country: United Kingdom
Fish Tank was one of the most celebrated films of last year, making a particularly deep impression at the Cannes Film Festival, where it tied with Park Chan-wook's Thirst for the Jury Prize. Remarkably, director Andrea Arnold has now won that very award twice, the first time being on the strength of her first feature film Red Road. Having also won an Oscar for her 2003 short film Wasp, she is clearly a fresh talent in contemporary cinema worth keeping an eye on.
Fish Tank revolves around fifteen year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, an inexperienced newcomer), a tough misfit who lives with her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) in a shabby apartment building in the Essex area of London. Her independent nature is asserted early on when she bickers with a group of scantily-clad girls practicing dance moves, breaking one's nose. One of her few safe havens is the empty room with blue walls where she practices her own dancing alone, often resting to look upon the world out the window. Music and dancing serve as means of escape for Mia, eventually offering some hope for the future in the form of a notice for an audition for female dancers. Noticeably, there is no music on the film's soundtrack, though songs frequently play from CD players and televisions (mostly hip-hop), surrounding the characters. Another distraction soon arrives in Mia's life: Connor (Michael Fassbender), Joanne's new boyfriend. A tentative friendship slowly forms between him and Mia as he encourages her to send a video for the dance audition and lends her his camcorder. As she visits him at work and becomes more comfortable in his presence, an underlying sexual tension becomes more apparent between them, testing Mia in ways both foreshadowed and unexpected.
Arnold's portrayal of Mia's life is rendered in an observational, fly-on-the-wall manner using hand-held camerawork and sharp attention to detail. Mia's apartment is a space that looks and feels lived in, a sensation reinforced by such elements as the tiger poster that adorns Mia's door, cluttered living room where Mia and her sister watch television, various knick-knacks, framed pictures and stickers and sketches that cover walls and furniture. Soft light and colors often fill the frame, casting dreamy hues of yellow, pink and blue on the actors' faces. This look offers a contrast to the rougher sequences shot outside of the apartment when Mia wanders on her own. An eerie junkyard, busy roads, empty fields, menacing storm clouds and the roaring sea all provide the impression of a hazardous, unfriendly world through which the young heroine must navigate. She visits a gray horse chained in a barren lot and makes repeated, increasingly risky efforts to free it. Her actions are often rash and impulsive (particularly in an agonizingly suspenseful passage towards the end), consistently reflecting the raging storm of feelings that swirl inside her.
Carrying on the legacy of films like The 400 Blows, Fish Tank is an uncompromisingly gritty portrayal of youth. Arnold refuses to dip too far into clichéd territory as she tells Mia's story, but when she uses familiar elements, they nonetheless feel fresh and honest. Her vision is a unique and invigorating one perfectly suited to the story material, nicely accommodating strong performances (particularly the remarkable Jarvis) amid a vivid assertion of setting and mood. With an adaptation of Wuthering Heights billed as her next project, Arnold is certainly on a roll that hopefully won't let up anytime soon.