Sunday, April 11, 2010

Swimming Through a Teenage Wasteland: FISH TANK

Writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second film, Fish Tank, is focused on 15-year-old Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis, arguing with her boyfriend at a train station when discovered by the director) who lives in a run-down apartment with her lower-class family: her young, boozy and verbally abusive mother (Kierston Wareing), and her precociously profane sister (Rebecca Griffiths). Mia behaves badly, but she’s not a bad kid, or at least we don’t think so right away. Her only small escape is her love of dance. Oh, now I know what you’re thinking, and no, this is not the talent-trumps-circumstances story that it may sound like. This is a grim setting presented in unembellished style with a hand-held camera and casual framing. It’s raw. There are scenes that are hard to watch, that set my emotions churning. The film may horse around with some easy symbolism, and it’s unfortunate that, in its last act, the film has to settle back into a handful of familiar scenes with conflicts that have played out in many other films, but the angst-filled center of this particular film more than keeps the film on the rails.

In this world, Mia runs in circles. There is emphasis on the circularity and insularity of her world. Her daily route takes her on the same round trip. She moves away from the apartment and the life it represents only to inevitably get pulled back towards it, finding conflict and despair on her way. Even the squared 1.33:1 aspect ratio conspires to keep her locked in her hope-deprived cycle. As played by Katie Jarvis, in a powerful performance that deserves mentioning alongside other great young performers with recent troubled-teen roles like Gabourey Sidibe and Carey Mulligan, Mia is a volatile mix of impulses. She’s shockingly, frighteningly, violent and spontaneous in her emotions. Though some of her behavior and feelings can be excused away by her age, her temperament and dangerous actions are more directly attributable to her environment.

Early in the film, Mia’s mother throws a rowdy party, shutting her daughters away in their rooms. Mia sneaks down and steals an unattended bottle of vodka, chugging it down in solitude while the sounds of the party thump through the thin walls. She and her sister smoke and swear with ease, move provocatively and speak insolently. They’re racing too quickly into the world of adults without even understanding how much danger they are opening up for themselves. Mia, especially, is filled with churning, foreign, and fleeting desires that are matched by a paradoxically stubborn malleability. Into this volatile environment comes a stranger, a new variable. It’s mom’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). He’s handsome and seems level-headed. He’s kind to the daughters, but there’s a squirmy sexual tension between Mia and him. It’s uncomfortable and clearly headed to a place that will not prove beneficial for anyone involved, especially since Mia and her mother stare at him with similar gazes and he returns them with similar smolders.

And yet, this is no mere wallow in the uncomfortable. There’s a zest and life to Arnold’s harsh mise-en-scene that traps the characters within small spaces and behind cramped fences. Even open fields, with brown grass and gray sky stretching to the horizon, seem to close in on them. There’s a sense of real lives being lived, not quietly in desperation, but rather in hollow shouts that land on deaf ears. It’s not a feel-good film, but it’s a good film, one that nobly has no answers, one that can be hard to watch but always remains tightly, respectfully focused. It’s a modest character study with great performances and plenty character to study.

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