The most striking image in Fish Tank is of a fish lying on the ground, gasping for air. It tells us all we need to know about this British coming-of-age-drama's teen character. There is no angst-ridden dialogue, no melodramatic fits of rage, just this simple image early in the film to reflect her struggle. Unlike most filmmakers working in this typically hyperbolic genre, writer-director Andrea Arnold maintains a quiet, subdued tone, employs a subtle visual style and draws understated but engaging performances from her cast.
This is the third film of 2009, next to Precious and An Education, to explore the sometimes gritty and unforgiving life of a young woman. Female characters are generally not given much depth in mainstream films. They are either the femme fatales or the damsels in distress. Hopefully, films like Fish Tank will change that.
The plot of Fish Tank revolves around an angry teen named Mia (newcomer Kate Jarvis) living in the squalid slums of Essex, England. From the very beginning of the film, she is seen attacking people with brute force, head-butting one of her "friends" and screaming at her mother. We soon discover, however, the justification for her bad behavior. Prevented from leading a normal life by her oppressive mother (Kierston Wareing) and by her equally abusive peers, Mia lashes out in self defense. She is like the fish thrown out of its element gasping for air.
Mia surprisingly finds support from her mother's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor appears to be a gentle soul who seems as free in spirit as Mia hopes to be. He encourages her to pursue her dancing aspirations and he initially establishes himself as a father figure. That role soon changes when he and Mia grow closer and have an affair. It is here that we discover Connor is not what he appears to be - he is married with a child.
On its surface, the plot of Fish Tank seems like a sweeping, unsavory soap opera. However, unlike soap operas, the story unfolds in a slow, quiet, subdued, even delicate manner. Even the climactic, violent confrontations between the characters are brief and realistically awkward.
Writer-director Andrea Arnold relies more on visuals to tell this story than dialogue. We learn about Mia's past - and evolution - through drawings in her room. The camera lingers on pictures of kittens and horses carved into her bedposts and walls - images of innocence long lost.
These characters come to brilliant life thanks to the restrained, yet complex performances of the principal actors. With effortless charm and vulnerability, Michael Fassbender seduces the audience into trusting him as much as Mia. He carries a subtle look of pain behind his eyes, as though he is holding a secret that is about to burst out of him. Kierston Wareing brings depth to the role of Mia's harsh, alcoholic mother - a flawed character that could have easily been portrayed as a mere monster. Her portrayal is sympathetic in that she looks as though she regrets her acts of cruelty immediately after committing them. The real standout, however, is Kate Jarvis. Her powerful portrayal of Mia is one of the most indelible and assured debut performances in recent memory. She is absolutely magnetic, evoking sympathy by looking as though she is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders at all times. It is one of those rare, immersive performances that make you forget you are watching an actor and to some degree you're not. Jarvis was discovered for the film while having an argument with her boyfriend at a train station. It must have been quite an argument. You'd never guess that she is a non-actor.
Fish Tank is an authentic drama, with characters and a world so achingly real that it could be mistaken for a documentary. It is the kind of film that demonstrates cinema's second great power next to transporting us to other worlds - it's ability to make us take a hard look at our own.
This film starts Friday, April 2 at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema.