Milos Stehlik Reviews “Fish Tank”
Worldview (WBEZ: Chicago)
In modern times, film takes the place of myth. Even postwar Italy’s so-called neo-realist films, which created a new urgency by telling the stories of ordinary people in everyday circumstances, relied on mythological underpinnings by using traditional dramatic structures.
It takes unusual circumstances and great talent to peel the mythological onion skin off characters’ shrouded lives to confront us with something resembling reality or truth. Fish Tank, the second feature film of talented British filmmaker Andrea Arnold is such a rarity.
The film is set in a bleak housing project – an estate – in Essex. The protagonist is 15-year-old Mia, the kind of girl, one British critic observed, who is more usually a statistic than a person who art-film audiences get to know in any depth.
She is a bored teenager, usually wearing a hoodie, hanging with a group of girls who seem equally adept at forming a close bond with the juvenile justice system. Mia is sullen, abrasive, and alternately passive-aggressive. She lives in a crowded council flat with her mom Joanne and her sassy younger sister. Mia’s solace comes freestyle dancing in an abandoned flat where her tape player booms out hip hop music.
Joanne’s new boyfriend, Connor, an effusive Irishman, walks into Mia’s family kitchen as the obvious testosterone presence in an estrogen-fueled household. Connor charms Joanne, takes the family on a country getaway, and introduces Mia to his favorite music. From the start, we know he is trouble.
On one level, Fish Tank is about teenage alienation, of being lost in a dysfunctional world which offers little connectedness or support. How does someone like Mia find herself in such an anonymous universe? As it turns out, the adult world in Fish Tank is filled with lies, where emotion and warmth mask betrayal.
In a symbolic riff, Mia becomes obsessed with freeing a white horse chained up near the estate. Fish Tank acutely observes Mia as vulnerable to adult exploitation; a girl caught in that elusive zone between childhood and womanhood. This all culminates in her quest for retribution, ending in a harrowing sequence.
Actress Katie Jarvis as Mia is nothing short of riveting. Suspended between tenderness and hard knocks, Jarvis erases the line between performance and being. Fish Tank delivers a dose of reality, and an unresolved measure of hope.
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