FISH TANK: Andrea Arnold Pulls Treasure from the Muck

“Mia” (Katie Jarvis) lives in an East London housing project with her mother “Joanne” (Kierston Wareing) and her younger sister “Tyler” (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne is an arrested adolescent more comfortable in her frilly pink bedroom than her own kitchen, so Mia and Tyler are both growing up wild. Then a handsome man named “Connor” (Michael Fassbender) enters their family circle. Is he the husband/father they’ve all been waiting for . . . or just another predator?

Unfortunately, both Connor and Joanne behave just as badly as we expect them to, but I can’t remember ever meeting a character quite like Mia before: foul-mouthed but clearly intelligent, damaged and needy, but also resourceful and resilient. Good outcomes are more likely than bad ones because Mia’s behavior gives us cause for hope.

Writer/Director Andrea Arnold doesn’t make “typical” British films. You won’t find any carriages or ball gowns, polished manners or polite conversations in her world, just solid and thoroughly absorbing films told from an undeniably female point of view. (JLH: 5/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

“Mia” (Katie Jarvis) lives near the marshy edge of the Thames River with her mother “Joanne” (Kierston Wareing) and her younger sister “Tyler” (Rebecca Griffiths). There don’t seem to be many adult men around, and there’s certainly no evidence of a husband for Joanne or a father (or fathers) for her two daughters. Do these three people even share one common family name? Who knows?

What they do share is a rundown apartment in an East London housing project, large enough for three, but in poor repair. Crusty dishes are stacked on countertops, but nothing simmers on the stove, and the only nutritious item coming from the fridge is a single container of yoghurt. It would be easy enough to fault Joanne, until we realize how young she is. She’s an arrested adolescent more comfortable in her frilly pink bedroom than her own kitchen. Is it any wonder that Mia and Tyler are growing up wild?

Mia’s escape comes through dancing. She’s found an abandoned apartment where she can be alone, and she spends most of her time practicing hip-hop routines. She dresses in baggy sweats, like a rapper, and throws her ferocious energy into new moves.

One day Mia is at home, mimicking Black dancers on TV, when a barefoot stranger comes up behind her. It seems Joanne has a new boyfriend named “Connor” (Michael Fassbender) who now fancies himself the cock of the walk. How else to explain the fact that Connor swaggers into the kitchen wearing nothing but a low-slung pair of jeans? Mia is startled, but she quickly adjusts. Connor’s clearly not the first man to enter their family circle though Joanne’s bedroom door.

We think we know where this is going, and unfortunately, both Connor and Joanne behave just as badly as we expect them to, but I can’t remember ever meeting a character quite like Mia before. Actress Katie Jarvis fills the frame in every single scene, foul-mouthed but clearly intelligent, damaged and needy, but also resourceful and resilient. This is her first screen role and she’s terrific.

Writer/director Andrea Arnold came out of nowhere to win a “Best Live Action Short” Oscar for her 26-minute film Wasp in 2005 (about an even younger and even more overwhelmed single mother), and the following year her first full length feature, Red Road, won the Jury Prize at Cannes. In 2007, Arnold was named “British Newcomer of the Year” by both BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and the London Critics Circle. Fish Tank brought Arnold additional honors in 2009 (including one more from Cannes as well as two from my own Chicago International Film Festival).

The most remarkable thing about this stream of accolades is that all three films tell stories from an undeniably female point of view. Yes, British audiences accept female protagonists more readily than their American cousins do. Women novelists like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf have been widely-read and much admired through-out the generations, and new film adaptations of their work keep coming in an unceasing flow.

Andrea Arnold doesn’t make “typical” British films. You won’t find any carriages or ball gowns, polished manners or polite conversations in Andrea Arnold’s world! Her heroines are raw and bruised, always pushing again and again at the edge of acceptable behavior. For all that, though, they never lose our sympathy; no matter what they do, we still worry about them and will them to succeed.

The film opens with Mia searching for her best friend, “Keeley” (Sarah Bayes). When she finally finds her, Keeley is one of a gaggle of girls performing a provocative dance routine for an ogling assortment of neighborhood boys. The more Mia tries to engage her, the more Keeley tarts it up until Mia finally explodes, stomping off enraged and alone.

Then we meet Joanne, and watching Joanne as she dances alone in their flat, we understand. Mia doesn’t want to move the way Joanne and Keeley move. Dancing is Mia’s way of expressing physical exuberance, and the last thing she wants is to attract male attention.

But Connor is always watching Mia and finding seemingly innocent reasons to touch her in ominous ways. He’s so handsome and likeable that we want to believe the best of him. Maybe Connor really is the husband/father they’ve all been waiting for? Warming to him, Mia lets her guard down, never admitting either to herself or to her mother that Connor makes her uneasy. And so the sexual tension inside the flat builds to an inevitable climax.

However, even though she’s only fifteen years old, Mia is totally self-directed, and Connor quickly learns that he can’t control her any more than Joanne can. Learning their lessons the hard way, Connor’s betrayal becomes something of a wake-up call for the whole family.

Arnold mirrors Mia’s coming-of-age with scenes of a physical environment that’s also in transition. Will the Thames marshes, so beautifully captured here by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who also created the forbidding urban landscapes in Arnold’s Red Road as well as the intensely-lit interior spaces in Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane) remain industrial wastelands, or will they one day become wildlife sanctuaries? Arnold sees the potential for both outcomes, good and bad, and Mia’s ability to step into the muck and pull treasure from muddy water is cause for hope.

SPOILER ALERT:  Please do NOT read until after you have seen Fish Tank!

One night, mid-movie, Connor gets Joanne drunk, puts her to bed, and then heads back to the living room sofa to watch TV with Mia. When he finally makes his move (the move we now know, with regret, that he’s been planning all along), Connor compares himself to Mia’s friend “Billy” (Harry Treadaway). Billy is a boy, Connor crows, but I’m a man.

Clearly Connor has convinced himself that Mia is having sex with Billy because that makes it easier for him to have his way with her. Yes, yes, Mia’s just a kid, she’s only 15, but she’s already sexually active, so what’s the problem?

The problem is we never see Mia having sex with Billy, and what we know of their relationship makes intercourse very unlikely. So is Mia a virgin?

I know it’s a very subtle point, but why isn’t Mia worried about blood? The sofa is beige. If she’s a virgin, then shouldn’t Mia be afraid of blood stains? Surely she doesn’t want Joanne to know what’s just happened on her beige sofa!

Here is what I think: I think Mia is not a virgin when she has sexual intercourse with Connor. I think Connor is just one more man who took advantage of the daughter while “romancing” the mother. So no, Connor is not the first predator to violate Mia, but I do think maybe, just maybe, he will be the last. I think, on some level, Joanne knows why Connor leaves her so abruptly, and she will do a better job protecting Tyler in future. And I think Tyler has been watching too. She’s a pretty clever kid, and I think she will protect herself better than Mia did.

But what about Connor? Has Connor learned anything? He’s enraged when Mia violates the sanctity of his home and endangers his daughter “Keira” (Sydney Mary Nash), and rightfully so. But the fact that he acts out, hunting Mia down and smacking her around, indicates to me that he’s learned nothing. My guess is that Keira will continue to pay for the sins of her father, a father now more likely to be overprotective because he knows only too well what beasts men can be.

In her perceptive article “The year the girls grew up on screen,” Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen writes: “Far from not wanting your daughters to see [these films], perhaps we should insist on it: give them ‘ideas,’ make them think a bit.”

I agree! Films like Fish Tank and An Education (which Ellen mentions), and The Lovely Bones (which she does not) tell their stories from the girl’s point of view, and “the hoariest of all coming-of-age clichés, the wonderful sexual awakening, gets undermined . . . Indeed, with these feminine teen verité films, it seems there are fewer clichés, period. No one gets to fall in love happily or innocently.”

Girls deserve to know the truth about the world; we need to tell them all the things we’ve already learned the hard way, and make sure they know they’re not alone. Many girls have been victims in the past and many girls will be victims in the future, but maybe, just maybe forewarned is forearmed.

Men like Connor and “David” (in An Education) might well be handsome and charming, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous, and even a monster like serial killer “George Harvey” (in The Lovely Bones) can hide his demons for years before his crimes catch up with him. But maybe, just maybe, seeing their private behavior revealed on screen will make some predators ashamed of their behavior—unforgivable behavior that has no excuse and is not sanctioned by society.

Fish Tank ends with one last dance. This time Mia leads from the middle, with Joanne to her right and sister Tyler to her left, and they’re all dancing Mia’s way, for themselves and for each other. The path ahead will not be easy; the deck is stacked against them and they all know it. But their last dance together, while bittersweet, is touched with grace. One lives in hope!

Here’s the link to Barbara Ellen’s article:

© Jan Lisa Huttner (2/15/10) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Katie Jarvis as “Mia.”

Middle Photo: Michael Fassbender with Katie Jarvis as “Conor” and “Mia.”

Bottom Photo: Katie Jarvis as “Mia.”

Photo Credits: Holly Horner.

Tags: FF2 Media

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