Fish Tank

Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Distributed by: Curzon Artificial Eye

Written by Jeff Sparks


With my first 100/100 score at Drink in the Movies, we have Andrea Arnold’s first masterpiece, “Fish Tank” starring Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, and the ever-charming Michael Fassbender. The film follows Jarvis as Mia Williams, an aspiring teenage dancer who lives in a less fortunate neighborhood with her sleazy mother, her carefree boyfriend, and her troublesome little sister. With the opening frame of the film, Arnold wastes no time, immediately introducing us to our lead character who is out of breath after practicing her dance routine. As she refines her performance against an ocean blue colored wall in an empty room on the top of her apartment building she gazes out at kids playing in unsafe areas below and birds soaring high above. Like with all Arnold films she chooses to portray an unusual character you don’t often see as the main focus. Mia is a tough, standoffish girl in a broken world. She has no father figure, her mother is unfit, only concerned with partying, and her younger sister is almost as much of a trouble maker as she is.

In only the first few minutes of the film we see Mia headbutt a random girl after criticizing her dancing, an art Mia has high respect for. Shortly thereafter we are introduced to Mia’s home life as she makes her way through the balconies to her home, passing dirty clothes hanging on makeshift clotheslines, shoes litter the walkways, along with other junk that constructs her path. Mia is soon introduced to her mother’s new boyfriend, Conor played by Michael Fassbender who Mia becomes fascinated with due to the charm and kindness he radiates that no one else in this town especially not in her family has. When Conor invites the family on a trip we arrive at one of the most important scenes of the film where the main theme, Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin’” cover is first used. When Conor introduces the three Williams women to the song Mia immediately connects to the song as she closes her eyes and hangs on every word as the warm sun beats down on her face and the cool wind blows through her dark hair.

Mia begins to have many connections with Conor around this time starting off with him carrying her to bed, him taking her fishing, and then patching up an injury she sustains on her foot. All things her mother wouldn’t do for her. Conor then assists Mia in trying out for a dance audition where he gives her advice and supplies for her to use. A critical scene comes when Mia shows Connor the dance she has been practicing while using his favorite song “California Dreamin’”. While dancing the wallpaper behind her is made of an image of a sunny beach with palm trees which couldn’t be further from the urban streets of the United Kingdom that she has been relegated to her whole life. This scene beautifully and tragically represents not only her dreams of getting away from this place but also her desire for Conor that has gone from fondness to a crush. After the two consume alcohol and have sex Mia hunts down Conor, who has disappeared, and upon finding out he secretly has a wife and daughter, realizes her desire for him is all but a dream.

After urinating on the floor in shock she chooses to trick his child into getting lost in the woods as Mia loses herself in her rage. After putting the girl’s life in danger and realizing what she has done is worse than anything the people around her have done, she decides it’s time for a change and runs away with her boyfriend. Before leaving she attempts to say goodbye to her mother and sister. While dancing to Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch” her mother quietly says “Well fuck off then.” Realizing none of them know how to say goodbye she instead begins dancing with the mother, mimicking her subtle moves, and grasps the idea that this is the only way she will ever be able to connect with the woman that gave birth to her.

One of the best things about Arnold is the way she utilizes actors and brings out talent not many other directors could. Lead actress Katie Jarvis was found at a train station shouting at her boyfriend by Arnold’s casting director. Despite having zero prior acting experience Arnold found a way to bring out an incredibly believable and raw performance that might not have been achieved by using a professional actor. Arnold surrounds the newcomer with talent to support her, such as Kierston Wareing who brings a level of validity to a character that is hard to like. Despite being a woman who has no interest in her responsibility to take care of her children, Wareings’ performance makes the character interesting, unlikeable as she may be. Lastly in the acting department, we have what is quite possibly the best work by the terrific Michael Fassbender who plays his character with such elegance and charm. Being a man who lacks any kind of responsibility but excels in charm and charisma, Fassbender finds the perfect balance to make the character feel just as authentic as the people around him.

Arnold once again proves her technical intelligence of filmmaking is at the absolute top of the game with her excellence in “Fish Tank”. Accompanied by her usual cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the two use Arnold’s iconic signature style that utilizes her favored 4:3 aspect ratio. Often having the camera follow behind or over the shoulder of Mia, the incredible framing of the camera acts as a lens into the world, letting you see what Mia sees, immersing you into the film. Whether it be cramped apartments, the muddy streets, or open fields, Ryan and Arnold capture so much around her making you feel like you’re walking on the ground with her. The main element that makes her films so great is Arnold’s dedication to authenticity to her characters. Not only did she feed the script one piece at a time to her actors throughout the making of the film, but she also pulled tricks such as encouraging her actors to actually drink beforehand in scenes where large portions of alcohol were consumed. By going outside the lines like this she not only helps the actors get into character better but also makes the scenes feel real to life which has become her calling card over the years as she has continuously portrayed genuine characters that are inspired by the people we see in our daily lives that the world tries to forget.

“Fish Tank” Trailer

“Fish Tank” is streaming on Criterion Channel, Plex, and Tubi TV.

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