FILM There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome. Two 2009 entries will earn Oscar nominations: Lone Scherfig’s An Education, about a 1960s British 16-year-old who learns a hard lesson about trusting an older, slippery suitor; and Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire, about a 1980s Harlem girl who’s already learned a lifetime of hard lessons by her 16th birthday. I’m not the first reviewer to compare either of these films to Fish Tank (both it and Precious snagged prestigious festival prizes in 2009), and I’m probably not alone in saying that Andrea Arnold’s gritty new drama is the superior choice among the three. If there’s justice, Fish Tank won’t be forgotten when next year’s award nominations roll out. (Arnold’s no stranger to Academy gold, having already picked up a statuette for her 2003 short film, Wasp.)
I’ll admit it: I’m an Arnold fanatic. If I had to point to one new filmmaker whose work most excites me, I’d likely pick Arnold. Her films are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic.
When I spoke to Arnold before the release of her 2006 Red Road — about a CCTV operator who hatches a slow-boil revenge plot — she elaborated on why she populates her scripts with such ordinary, yet deeply complex, characters: “I think all human beings are very complicated in their circumstances and their environments — sometimes people don’t always behave in the best way. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re bad. I like seeing people who may not be easily likable to start. But then when you get to understand them more, you have empathy for them.”
She was referring to the main character of Red Road. But she could have just as easily been describing Mia, Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine. (In a story that kicks Lana Turner’s famous star-is-born moment in the teeth, first-time actor Katie Jarvis was discovered while arguing with her boyfriend at a train station.) Mia lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. Mia is particularly good at slamming doors and sprinting away from trouble. The other girls in the ‘hood hate her; her only friend is a neighbor’s raggedy pony, whose tied-up existence both frustrates and fascinates her.
But much like sparkly-dreamer Precious, Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. And much like An Education‘s Jenny, Mia’s stumbling path toward womanhood becomes ever-more confusing with the appearance of an older man — here, mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger). At first, it’s unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate?
Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness.
FISH TANK OPENS FRI/29 IN BAY AREA THEATERS.