BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The metaphors in Andrea Arnold’s acclaimed coming-of-age story Fish Tank are so blatant they threaten to smother the film itself. The “fish tank” of the title is an ugly public housing complex that’s home to Mia, a fifteen year old brooding, feral teen who wanders around friendless, vulnerable and spitting profanities beneath overcast English skies. Arnold’s direction keeps the camera tightly on the first-time actress Katie Jarvis, who plays Mia, trapping her in the claustrophobically square frame. Often shot in the blue light of night, Mia appears to be every bit the bottled-up fish, sealed off and uncomprehending of the world outside her tank.
However her spirit is like that pony she observes chained up in a nearby junkyard, a symbol of strength and beauty that is slowly dying in this forsaken place. Mia’s home offers no solace; her mom is around 30 and still drinking and carousing like she hasn’t a responsibility in the world. If Mia’s mom represents a future she’d like to avoid, her younger sister is a window into her past: at ten she is already drinking and swearing like a sailor. Mia finds unexpected empathy when her mother brings home a new boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender), but just the way that he quietly watches Mia as she dances in her underwear gives us a clue that his sweet exterior is not to be trusted.
While Andrea Arnold’s second feature starts off looking like the latest in Britain’s long tradition of “Kitchen Sink” dramas, something deeper is at play. Arnold wants to do more than convince us that we’re looking at “reality,” with its non-professional acting, handheld camera and its stark post-industrial setting (shot in the dilapidated British county of Essex), Arnold wants us to see the world through Mia’s eyes. Here she is quite successful, constructing some rapturously beautiful compositions out of the detritus strewn among their shabby apartment and the barren landscape that Mia traverses. Connor makes the frequently fuming Mia crack her first smile a full fifty minutes into the film and when she’s revels in his attention the images slows almost imperceptibly, as if she clutching to the experience like a favored memory.
It seems like male directors would be more apt to whip the treacherous elements of Mia’s life into a tragic finale. Arnold takes a spooky turn to melodrama before the film is over but she has no interest in sadistically steering Mia over a cliff’s edge. Sure, this soul-killing landscape may claim many lives but because Fish Tank does not avert its eyes from the carnage, its somewhat upbeat finale feels quite earned.