Let’s start with the basics. Fish Tank is a 2009 British drama directed by Andrea Arnold. It stars non-actor Katie Jarvis and currently hot property Michael Fassbender and it won a bunch of awards and is generally well-regarded. Certainly I only watched it because of Fassbender and because one of the guys on the /Filmcast had named it one of his films of last year.
Fish Tank is the story of Mia (played by Jarvis), an emotionally turbulent 15 year old living a life that could best be described as ‘total shit.’ Her single mother seems to drink and throw parties and generally resent her children. Mia’s little sister Tyler swears up a storm and throws tantrums at the least provocation. Mia doesn’t seem much better, picking fights with local groups of girls.
Her one escape is dancing to hip-hop, which she is utterly focused on, using a deserted apartment to practice. The rest of her free time is devoted to roaming around and getting into trouble, including adventures with a local boy and a sick horse she wishes she could save.
Her mother’s newest boyfriend is a man named Connor (Fassbender), and when he comes into Mia’s life he’s charming and likable and full of new experiences and a confidence that Mia doesn’t have. She takes to his enthusiasm like a person dying of thirst would take to water. Then things continue to go to shit.
Fish Tank is a realist film, which at its simplest means a whole lot of bad things happen and there really isn’t much of a plot. It’s an experiential thing, meant to show a slice of life as it is. Unfortunately, director Andrea Arnold seems to have a very dim view of what life is like and how to turn that into a good piece of film, realist or not.
The best realist cinema shows us things that strike home, scenes that feel truer than more plot-driven fare. We’re presented something that could very well be happening with a camera just happening to be there. At the best of times you get moving small-picture films. But at the worst of times, you get something akin to suffering voyeurism, the emotional equivalent of a torture porn film, with characters who drift in and out of progressively shitty situations, with moments of levity only serving to build up hope before they’re crushed against the rocks of the bleakness of ‘real life’ once again.
Fish Tank, unfortunately, falls heavily into that later category. Much of the film is devoted to Mia being rejected or betrayed by everyone and everything she comes up against. Her family is against her, her situation is shitty, the man she comes to look up to ends up being not what he seems, and even her dancing doesn’t pan out as she wants.
The dancing is significant in that it’s the closest the film has to a plot. Mia desires to be a hip hop dancer, practicing seemingly for hours on end and watching endless videos of other dancers on youtube. But in what I can only assume is meant to be a final twist of the knife, Mia’s absolutely terrible. Nobody in her life bothers to tell her this, but she simply can’t dance, and her fumbling to pull off the moves she’s seen online would be embarrassing if it wasn’t so hopelessly bleak. Alone, in an empty room, Mia thinks of herself as a prodigy. We watch her writhe on the floor trying to look competent. But the hammer never really falls.
Late in the film, Mia goes to one audition for a dancing job, which turns out to be an audition for strippers. But at this point she’s so sick of everything in her life she doesn’t even try to give the performance she feels she has in her head. Instead it simply amounts to awkward moments of inaction before she leaves, dream deflated.
In defter hands that whole subplot could have amounted to some sort of art house commentary on the downtrodden teen wants to dance sub-genre that is populated with ridiculous, escapist fare like the Step Up series and its ilk, films that are flashy and dumb and full of the same story again and again. The film never really commits to it, though, and instead its simply there, a thread to be picked up on if the viewer feels like it. Certainly the director can’t be bothered, because life is simply so hard. Who has time for actual plots?
All this is cradled in the loving bosom of British life, which seems in many modern films to consist of huge buildings of run down apartments and kids acting like an aggressive cliche of hooliganism. People bump each other and get into screaming arguments. Streets seem overgrown and burnt out, random rocks and concrete rubble strewn about deserted streets for effect.
I don’t know how true the film is or not, but it depicts a Britain that seems to have gone through some kind of apocalypse and nobody noticed. 28 Days Later could have happened and these people would be too busy drinking and acting grumpy to notice. I can only assume this is the actual truth about British life, because the only other alternative British film presents is the stuffy period drama or romance, and I know with a certain amount of certainty nobody’s running around in hoop skirts anymore.
There’s one scene in Fish Tank that I would call genuinely great, that happens in the last five minutes of the lengthy, agonizing 124 that make up its run time. Mia, deciding finally to leave her home for parts unknown, tells her mother who is drifting in a haze of what could be depression or drunkenness but is probably just crushing apathy at being little more than a plot device than a real character. Her mother is dancing to one of Mia’s CDs, and Mia begins to dance as well, with her sister mimicking them clumsily from behind as Nas’s “Life’s A Bitch” plays.
The two of them mirror each other, and in a long shot of all three dancing, we’re left wondering for a moment where exactly Mia’s mother is coming from. Who was she? Did she have the same dreams Mia did? Did she fail in achieving them, or did she just run away like Mia is going to, to this existential hell of a life? It’s a nice, ambiguous commentary on Mia’s leaving that would have served as a genuinely good unanswered question.
Buuuuuuuut… in what might be the grossest misstep of the entire movie, the film actually goes on several minutes past this, to Mia actually leaving town with a boy she kind of likes but is seemingly there only as a means to escape to. You notice I didn’t bother mentioning him yet. That’s because he serves little purpose outside of this one primary function. And as the two of them leave, the film cuts to a final shot of a mylar heart balloon floating above the council estate Mia is leaving.
This one image, of a beautiful thing escaping from all this urban decay and ignorance, is the one blink away from the film’s insistence upon unyielding realist nihilism. And when the director finally blinks, it’s not for anything meaningful, but for a single saccharine shot of symbolism so ham-fisted it would make film school students embarrassed to have shot.
So ends Fish Tank, not with grace but with a sledgehammer. Which I suppose is appropriate, considering how clumsily the rest of the film is handled. At its best, the movie aspires to be something significant about the life of children and teens. But really, it provides nothing, an empty look at empty people who would be characters if time was spent looking away from how terrible everything is. If you really want an uncompromising look at childhood, there’s always The 400 Blows, which does the same thing without resorting to pandering, with more economy and grace and thought, at 75% of the run time. You’ll thank me later.