(I Actually Can’t Think of a Good Review Title to Properly Describe How Much I Love Fish Tank)
By Kristin Battestella
I’ve been struggling for the past few weeks on exactly how to approach my review of the 2009 Andrea Arnold Jury Prize winner Fish Tank. Can I abstractly discuss the philosophies of Brit despair and downtrodden lost youth herein and properly capture the exceptional gist of the film? Or, can I write in all the finite spoiler examination glory that I’m just itching to investigate and talk about with the twisted twists and twisted turns burning up the screen? Sugar foot, I just can’t help myself with this film! We’ll do the pleasantries first, with the juicy bits hidden beneath to follow.
Mia’s (Katie Jarvis) life pretty much sucks. She’s been kicked out of school, doesn’t get along with the local girls, and tries to free a dying horse before returning home and getting in a routine and curse-laden shouting match with her young and blonde mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). Little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) is also surprisingly capable of handling the foul-mouthed wit, drinking, and smoking that fills their tiny council apartment. Mia’s only escape is some booze, the lame local boys, and a neighboring empty apartment where she practices hip hop dancing. One day, Mia meets her mother’s latest boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender). Quickly he ingratiates himself into the girls’ lives and seemingly becomes the stable male figure that could set the household straight. Or not.
Refreshing Film Design
Writer and director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Wasp) wastes no frame in establishing the crappy corner of Essex that is Mia’s world and doesn’t let up for a solid two hours. I’m an American adult, and yet after seeing Fish Tank, I feel like I’ve been to the unpleasant of ye merry England and spent a shitty teenhood there. To say the least, anybody who’s been around a crappy neighbor can relate. Perhaps one can simplistically hinge this tale on the stereotypical coming of age teen sexual drama. However, by time your well and deep into Fish Tank, you don’t think that at all. This almost feels like a documentary not a movie; a lone camera following a girl, a person with pain and passion that we can all understand. One may not notice initially, but Arnold smartly filmed Fish Tank in old fashioned, square full screen glory. Yes, the symbolism of being boxed in with the titular small fish is a little obvious once you notice the aspect ratio, but it’s more interesting that Arnold even thought to have the film itself reflect the dated and crappy onscreen world when so many other directors go for more and more effects and detracting visuals. In a way, the audience is meant to feel like the Peeping Tom of the piece, observing everything from just over Mia’s shoulder. It’s refreshing to return to such classic A Christmas Carol “And I am standing in the spirit at your elbow” filmmaking.
Arnold wastes nothing onscreen. The small, colorful TV/DVD combos within the film continue the trend, and heck, why have a film composer when you have a CD with the song you want handy? Fish Tank was made on the cheap, for sure, and a lot of that leads to its ingenuity, yes. However, if you can make great films like this with next to nothing, why the heck aren’t we? The handheld camerawork is not the jagged, in your face herky jerky and extreme of faux reality yarns like Ghost Hunters- it is natural, fluid, personal, and even uncomfortable for the viewer thanks to what it finds. The audience also feels like we’re blushing over this private peep show thanks to Arnold’s tight script. Again perhaps out of scheduling necessity but also by smarts, Arnold filmed Fish Tank in chronological order and gave the cast the script piecemeal. Like the viewer who doesn’t know what will happen next, the actors didn’t know the turns their characters would take. Now that we see the realistic and successful results of this arrangement in Fish Tank, again one wonders why more films aren’t done this way. While we may have never given it a second thought before, now in comparison, it seems strange to think how other movies will have their players filming critical plot twists and character motivations out of order. How can that possibly be genuine?
The naturally made to look crappy set design also adds a layer of character to Fish Tank. Mia has a very old and dirty room for which she is probably too old- with a half empty snow globe highlighted as one of the few things she actually owns. She must go to a rundown internet café to watch break dancing videos and has to mail things from the corner convenience store. Little sister Tyler also should remain a little girl and innocent as her room suggests- with some kind of hamster, a dog aptly named Tenants, and drawings of cats on the walls. All they ever seem to do is watch music videos. Mom Joanne dresses like her daughters, their rooms are all the same garish pink color, they have sheets on the windows, and they all seem stuck in the seventies. Not retro, just shitty with a tropical mural in the living room and low to the floor designs with junk piled everywhere and laundry hanging on the balcony. Oh, and the mini refrigerator in their kitchen is empty. Well, if that doesn’t get you in the mood of this world, nothing will!
The music and diegetic sound design also adds dimension to Fish Tank. Though I’m not a fan of modern hip hop music (I much prefer the old school rap), the songs chosen here are pretty good ones- great dance tunes with hard hitting lyrics and subtext. One might also debate whether Arnold expressly lets certain snips of lyrics from the onscreen music videos be heard in place of dialogue to suggest more innuendo. Again, it’s a little indicative of the urban, music video generation that Mia would be interested in American Rap music just because it’s all she sees on television, but the despair of youth in song shines through. Bobby Womack’s California Dreamin’ rendition contrasts these contemporary grooves perfectly with a mellow, nice and easy, seemingly blissfully comparison. As much as I love The Mamas & The Papas classic, their version would not have played as well for today’s teens. Although the timing of Arnold’s writing and the filming of Fish Tank doesn’t coincide with Mackenzie Phillips’ recent sexual claims about her father John Phillips (ew and thanks for ruining all their songs for me!), I do think its ironic California Dreamin’- arguably Papa John’s most famous tune- is in this particular film about the grey line between father figure and budding iffy sexuality. This does make listening to The Mamas & The Papas a little weird now, doesn’t it? Likewise bleak and disturbing are the real council housing locations in Fish Tank. I’ve seen my share of American projects, but my goodness these places- even the higher up areas we see- look twenty years behind the times. As Connor says, “Get on out, girl!” and after living in Fish Tank’s world for a few hours, the viewer has to agree.
People, not Characters.
While some critics have dismissed newcomer Katie Jarvis as having it easy and simply playing herself, Mia is much more than that. She dresses kind of dated, at least to me her hip sweats and track suits seems so nineties, indicating a lack of fashion and style know how. She only begins to wear makeup and come out of her angry shell once she meets Connor. Mia even goes in her mother’s room and goes through her things. Perhaps this is a pissy knee jerk reaction at first. But, it’s also almost as if Mia’s playing dress up, mixing youth- trying eyeliner- and adulthood- finding birth control- in ways she knows nothing about. She hasn’t even learned to present herself properly and is now confronted with all this budding whirlwind drama! All the girls in Fish Tank seem this way. All the females seem made to look ugly and dress like hos. Cunt and Bitch are terms of endearment as well as insults. Not only is this not an easy world clearly, but Arnold also somehow tastefully implies this place is a little antiquated and misogynistic. Oh, a man will fix this whether the chick wants him to or not! You get the feeling that if Mia had a father figure to begin with, none of this might have happened. Is that, however, such a bad thing? Fish Tank argues that these life changes will happen whether you are ready for them or not, and it is up to the individual to make the outcome positive or negative. While the horse symbolisms for Mia are a little much- freedom and chains and all that- these archetypes are also lovely and relatable, too. Despite her youth, energy, vitality, and latent sensuality, Mia is as chained up and starving old as the animal. Again, the jerking camera moving with each stroke as she tries to free the horse is more about letting her own anger out without having to say anything. Mia lashes out with overused hollow curse words because it is the only way she knows how. Jarvis in this debut captures the range of rage, emotion, realism, underlying softness, and hope needed to keep us rooting for Mia when things get ugly. Trainspotting, anyone?
The dancing elements- while also perhaps stereotypical- do go deeper. Fish Tank is not a dance film. The empty, abandoned apartment where Mia goes to dance is as bleak and despairing as she herself may very well seem. However, this is a free, uncluttered space with an open view. It does not contain all that makes her home so broken- shouting and violence. Ironically, I personally think Tyler is correct- Mia’s dancing isn’t that good. At the very least, it’s a few years behind- but the quality of movement is not the point. Dance is simply Mia’s chosen vehicle of art, self, freedom of expression, and potential talent that isn’t supported at home. Since she speaks with her body or seems to think that is the only outlet she has, I don’t wonder if Mia has been assaulted before? The creepy boys in the neighborhood are certainly implied as rapacious. Is this why Mia further crushes on Connor- the only seemingly stable man around? Why, after being so bottled up for so long, does she confide in him and want his opinion about her dance audition? How much can we read into why she chooses his song for her audition? Is it the song’s melancholy yearning for sunny California or is it her newfound feeling for him? Instead of the dated music video imitations, Mia’s unfinished (ah, life is unfinished, hint hint) dance routine becomes almost ballet: graceful, fluid, very beautiful, truly expressing herself in an artistic and sensual way. Isn’t that, by definition, sexy?
Fish Tank takes our inability to not judge someone and puts it on its ear. Kierston Wareing (The Take, It’s a Free World) looks completely different from Joanne in real life. The ‘mother’ of our piece is definitely some form of abusive, always hitting her kids and cursing in a sort of self loathing jealous and reflective anger at her own lost youth. In some ways, she is the immature teen here, caught in a time warp and listening to reggae music. She even likes to dance, too- but her impromptu parties downstairs turn into a sex fest with Mia seeing two couples getting it on. This is not a pretty part- we tend to look over these types of characters because they are so ugly. Is it Joanne’s fault? Perhaps, but not really. In a different world without their circumstances- or maybe with their hardships to boot- these three girls could have been a real trio with nothing to stop them. By contrast, if Joanne were a cool, wayward free spirited adventurous friend instead of parent, we’d probably think badly about her just the same. Instead, we have a difficult and angsty in between: a mom who is jealous of her own daughter. Joanne even seems jealous of Tyler and tries to compete with her youngest over Connor’s attention. Frankly, the fact that they are adults is the only thing she has in common with her new boyfriend- that and drinking. She is desperate to keep him to value herself. Why does she feel she needs a man for self worth? Joanne cooks and cleans the house for him, but not the kids. She even goes along with plans to send Mia to reform school, embarrassing and insulting and agreeing her daughter has always been trouble. If they sat together in the living room like family before Connor, maybe Mia wouldn’t be such a “bad seed”. Joanne hates Mia because she hates herself. And what does she do for a living, anyway?
Well, kid sister Tyler is a molestee waiting to happen. She tans in front of adults, smokes, drinks, curses-all learned behaviors from the upstanding examples in her community no doubt. She calls her mother by her first name and does nothing but watch TV. In real life, I would probably hate this full of shit arrogant little brat who curses whilst swinging on a swing. At best, it’s kind of weird to watch such a foul mouthed kid. It’s a shame though, because she has some of the best lines in the film! “I like you. I’ll kill you last!” Newcomer Rebecca Griffiths holds her own against the leads with great zest and natural fun. Her “What the hell?” in response to Fassbender’s “I’m going to catch a fish.” cracks me up and I’m not really sure why. Is it really so absurd to this little girl that a man can catch a fish with his hands? Tyler may talk big, but her talk is just that, talk. You can’t help but wonder what is going to happen to her by time she reaches Mia’s age, even though she deserves to be a kid now, she’s also clearly caught in some sort of limbo in between. Tyler doesn’t call Joanne “mum” until they are cruising to the countryside with Conner and playing animal guessing games in the car. You know, like a real family. Everyone seems to like being a family except for Joanne. In some ways, Connor coming along is a good thing. He is the stable force all three of these girls need in different ways. Unfortunately, things just kind of get a little mixed up!
The Fass Fassy Bender Bendy Smorgasbord
So then, let’s talk about The Man Himself, the gorgeous shirtless dreamboat with a car and a job that puts Joanne on Cloud 9 and awakens this entire household with attention, life, and sexuality. Fassbender (Hunger, X-Men First Class, Inglourious Basterds) seems so damn ^&*$##^ $@^&$# sexy in this film because everything is from Mia’s point of view. She has a crush on him from the start, and therefore so do we. We are swept off our theater seats along with Mia and that infatuation blinds us to the things about Connor we might not want to really see- or more importantly, the things Mia in her youth fails to comprehend or misinterprets. Some of that is her mistake, yes, but he certainly contributes! Connor genuinely seems a friend and role model initially; but as the film progresses, we see more and more budding inappropriateness. And again, though it’s so strange to say, it isn’t anyone’s fault. If he were unattached to her mother or their ages were slightly different, we might not have a problem with the hope of escape through a romantic relationship.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Connor and Mia becomes increasingly askew. Things are well and good when he takes them all on a drive to nature, outdoors, freedom from dirty concrete. If Joanne is uninterested in all of it, whom is he trying to impress with the fish? He works security at a home improvement store- clearly, he is not that many steps above them, yet he seems to know each of them is in awe of him. His camera and fancy car are as high tech as Mia’s ever seen. Connor seems to have more in common with her and goes out of his way to befriend her. If he is already in good with Joanne and she could care less about her kids, why does he bother? Does he really have to insist Mia climb on his back so he can carry her when she injures her foot? My favorite scene in Fish Tank is when Connor carries Mia to her room while she pretends to be sleeping. We know she is pretending because she likes him, and the excellently distorted and slow motion camera angles and movements show this lucid mix of dream and reality perfectly. This is romantic for her, and again we believe this could be a healthy romance. Couples have to lift one another and support each other- not unlike a parental figure at times. Is this also, then, in a good way, a fatherly scene? Connor takes off her shoes, folds her clothes, and covers her up….was it all innocent, him proving his good intentions to her and her family? One might believe so. He also carries Tyler upstairs to bed later, and has to put down a drunk Joanne as well- yet these scenes are played totally different. Really, there’s no harm from him towards this family, is there?
Ironically, it is Connor, not Joanne, who inquires on the boy Mia is bombing around with- claiming a 19 year old is too old for her. He seems the angry parent who is interested in her well-being. Or, when the conversation turns to sex, does that make his interests something more? Connor wants to talk about Mia’s school plans, and it is she who angrily insists he is not her parent. Why would she reject the one security she is getting at home? He was trying to be parental, wasn’t he? He almost always uses the word family for them. Mia wants a father, she wants a boyfriend. Though perhaps unaware of what she is really doing, she tries her darndest to get both from him- even watching him and her mother have sex then repeatedly slamming her bedroom door in response to them. Paging Dr. Freud! Eventually, Connor responds the only way he can- not that it by any means makes it everything all right. Again, we the voyeuristic viewer come away with no easy answers in Fish Tank. And that is just the wonderful, stunning, delightful, and exceptional Fassy in all his effing glory. Get on the ball, Oscar! The Fassman is calling you…you can’t ignore him forever!
Wow, I’ve already written a lot on Fish Tank, haven’t I? Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it; International awards and acclaim have followed 2010 BAFTA for Outstanding British Film recipient Arnold, British Independent Film Most Promising Newcomer Jarvis, and London Critics Circle Film Awards Best Supporting Actor Fassbender since the film’s debut at Cannes. In fact, the only place that Fish Tank seems on the outside looking in on accolades and larger audiences is the US. Hopefully, that will now change with the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray releases. Though the interface is kind of clunky, the blu-ray edition looks smashing! Despite its American unlove, plenty of features have also been included on the Region 1 release. These spoilery treats include a 14 minute in depth interview with Kierston Wareing (I love her idea that Joanne’s girls probably have different dads), a 25 minute audio conversation with Michael Fassbender, audition tapes, photo galleries, and three shorts films from Andrea Arnold. A commentary would have been nice, but all this took long enough just to be released stateside! Of course, not only is some of the natural dialogue in Fish Tank tough to hear, but some folks will definitely need subtitles for all the English English accents.
Fans of the cast- especially Fassbender- and Arnold will of course delight; but this Hard R coming of age tale is not for youths, prudes, or those who can’t take gritty downtrodden sexual drama. Despite her anti-Cockney ears, I keep thinking my 14-year-old niece might like Fish Tank for its dancing angles and intelligent maturity examinations. Then, I think of those juicy Fassy scenes and think ‘Good God no! Maybe I’ll consider it at 21…maybe.’ Even if you like seriously good film and enjoy Fish Tank, some parts are very difficult to watch, and frankly, it’s meant to be uncomfortable. My husband says that’s what I get for watching kinky movies. Unfortunately, at best, indiscretions like this happen in the real world all the time. We just turn a blind eye to the loss of innocence every day- be it Essex, England or Essex, New Jersey. Fish Tank, however, won’t let you look away. It’s that good.
Continue to our Fish Tank Spoiler Edition examination here if you dare!
Continue to our Fish Tank Spoiler Edition examination here if you dare!