Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner Fish Tank, from British writer-director Andrea Arnold, is a gritty, naturalistic drama that will slowly envelop patient arthouse audiences on the strength of its powerhouse performances. A slice of social realism in the vein of Ken Loach, this slow-boil, Essex-set tale of teen alienation and acting out is an example of character study done right.
Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, above) is in a constant state of war with her younger sister, her schoolmates and neighbors, without any constructive creative outlet for her considerable energies, save a secret love of hip-hop dancing. When her party-happy mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), an across-the-pond version of Amy Ryan’s character from Gone Baby Gone, brings home a rakish new boyfriend, Connor (Inglourious Basterds‘ Michael Fassbender), the rudderless Mia is quietly amazed to find him return her attention. In fits and starts, she argumentatively pushes him away and seeks his approval, believing he can help her start to make sense of her life. Slippery slope inappropriateness ensues.
In Fish Tank, there’s none of the vanity so typically associated with American films centered on teen protagonists, and the performances are something special. Acting neophyte Jarvis shines, conveying a believable spitfire mixture of teen vulnerability and anger, while the charismatic Fassbender, a star in the making, puts a good sheen on a character whose actions label him a cad. At two hours, Fish Tank is a bit overlong, but part of its engagement lies in the inexorably mounting tension in wondering whether the narrative is really going where you think it might be headed. It goes without saying that Hollywood studios wouldn’t touch this material without benefit of a moralizing conclusion, but the American indie version of this story would also most likely find it necessary to ascribe explicatory backstory, motivation or revelation to Connor, which Arnold rather refreshingly does not. Men, like adolescents, Arnold seems to say, tend to take. The value judgment one places on that is not her primary concern. For more information, click here. (IFC, R, 122 minutes)