Billy Gray

Fish Tank

In Movie Reviews on February 11, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is something of a white trash Lolita. Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a hell-raising truant so meek that she rehearses her hip-hop moves in an abandoned apartment for fear of exposing a passion. Her mom, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), is a phenomenally sexy and negligent layabout whose latest roll in the hay, Connor (the about-to-explode Michael Fassbender), draws Mia out of her shell and into his pants as the film’s March-September romance comes to a boil.

The British Fish Tank descends from the Italian vérité movement and, more recently and closer to home, the movies of Mike Leigh. Leigh’s films bypass the well-appointed flats of postcard-ready London for naturalistic looks at lower-middle class schlubs who wittily (and profanely) revel in their grumpiness (Naked) and unglamorous, all-too-familiar personal derailments (Secrets & Lies).

Can there be a movie about poor people that isn’t accused of fetishizing poverty? Critics filed the complaint against Precious (“ghetto porn”) and are doing it again with Fish Tank (“miserabilist pop,” according to renowned crank Armond White).

Sure, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography dwells on monolithic housing projects, weedy vacant lots and, this being an English movie, a menagerie of dentally challenged bit players. (Note that the three leads are beautiful, making the extras look even plainer.) But Fish Tank avoids romanticizing poverty by omitting any alternative that might heighten the characters’ misfortune. The lower-class milieu encases the film to a point where you don’t root for Mia to escape, but just to endure.

Besides, who can focus on the bleak peripheries when the cast is so magnetic? Jarvis is a powerhouse, going from grating, ornery toughie to vulnerable, sympathetic (and empathetic) lost soul to conniving lunatic bitch (a straight-up “cunt” in her 8-year-old sister’s patois).

Fassbender is electric in a role that completely breaks the cinematic predator mold. Connor’s sickness is largely undetectable, the only hints coming from clever camera angles (as he tucks a passed-out-drunk Mia into bed and steals a quick leer) or editing decisions as opposed to a performance that telegraphs creepiness. The man himself reveals nothing but a dashing smile and a genuine, platonic fondness for a girl he wants to encourage and protect before he submits to impulse and has sex with her on the living room couch.

Wareing beefs up a role that could have easily been reduced to comic relief, demonic mom cliché or gratuitous eye-candy sexpot. (The camera zooms in on the half-naked bodies of all three adult leads and isn’t shy about staying put for a while). Joanne is a selfish bullying loser but Wareing lends the character a vulnerability and neediness that explain, but never excuse, her failings. And Rebecca Griffiths raises precocious little sis’ Tyler above third-wheel status. She’s a heartbreaker.

Arnold’s screenplay makes the relationship more complex by not broadcasting its complexity. We don’t know Connor’s full story (Fish Tank forgoes a Psych 101 lecture that an American analog would require). Mia is a fully developed teenager and hardly a chaste ingénue. And we kind of hate ourselves for thinking that Mia is just as complicit in the hasty consummation as he is. The roles of predator and prey aren’t reversed; they’re nebulous.

Fish Tank’s 11th Hour crisis is its only serious misstep. As soon as Arnold lets the air out of the will-they-or-won’t-they balloon, tension dissipates. And the attempt to restore a conflict is forced.

But when the quarreling mother and daughters remove their hands from each other’s throats at the movie’s conclusion, all is forgiven. Fish Tank avoids melodrama in a plot that could have turned soapy. It’s the rare movie so grounded that even a culminating family dance scene feels honest.

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