I was first exposed to the work of Andrea Arnold in my first screenwriting class when the professor put on one of her short films called Wasp. This was a pretty incredible short film that showed a realistic depiction of the lower middle class in Britain, but more importantly, it showed the struggles of a family. The drama was never overdone and it was a very personal story. Now I can add Fish Tank to the list of Arnold’s movies that I have seen, and although the story is a lot more dramatic than that of Wasp, it still doesn’t seem like it couldn’t happen. In fact, this is one of the best examples of realism I have ever seen.
Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a fifteen year old girl living in a council estate with her mother and her younger sister. She is on the path to destruction with the type of people that she associates with and how her mother treats her. Her only solace can be found in dancing to hip hop. Her life undergoes a drastic change when her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), starts hanging around and making his way into their lives. Mia takes a surprising liking to Connor that she doesn’t really understand, but this connection flips her and her entire family’s life upside down.
This doesn’t really seem like the kind of movie that I’d run out to the store and spend a good amount of money on. The only reason I did purchase it was because I saw that Andrea Arnold made the film and Michael Fassbender had a starring role. When I actually saw what the story was about, I wasn’t to thrilled about actually watching. This just goes to show that I need to learn not to judge a movie before I see it, because Fish Tank is a really powerful movie in both its realism and its multiple layers of thematic material and a cast of characters whose problems really hit you where it hurts.
I keep using the word “realism” to describe this movie, but that’s because it really is an excellent example of British realism. Italian Neo-Realism was a popular movement in the early to mid 1900s, but now the British are having their turn at the realist style. Every where from the down to earth acting, the complete lack of extravagant lighting, and the very natural set pieces really turn this movie into something special. The locations, save for a few, have this grit to them that makes the places seem livable, but not too comfortable. In terms of the camera work, a lot of it is steadicam, and Arnold seems to relish in tracking shots to pull the viewer in to the character’s lives more and make them forget that they are watching a movie.
So while there is a lot of minimalism of style when it comes to the set design and other aesthetic areas of this movie, the acting is on par with the story. Katie Jarvis gives an outstanding performance where, as cliché as it might sound, you can see the pain and confusion in her eyes. Matching Jarvis’ naïve angst is Fassbender’s pleasant, yet suspicious, personality. Seeing the two characters clash works so well because the writing and the performances are all spot on.
So while Fish Tank doesn’t seem like my first choice of a movie to watch, I am in no way disappointed in what I saw. The story was understated at first, but really winds up into something explosive, without ever going overboard. While the movie could be a tad shorter, that is really my only complaint. If you don’t mind a slow pace and a minimal, gritty style, Fish Tank is an excellent drama that you should check out.