Andrea Arnold’s filmography so far is not a particularly long one, but it seems that even in the span of a short and a couple of features, it’s a significant one. Cut from the same cloth as fellow English miserablist Ken Loach, she seems fascinated by the grey areas inherent to a certain sort of UK upbringing. With “Fish Tank,” she’s made her best film so far, and in the process, reinforced just how glad I am I didn’t have any daughters.
Don’t get me wrong… I have friends with daughters, and I know how much they love them and what a particular type of joy that relationship brings them, and I’m sure they wouldn’t trade it for the world. But I know myself and I know how I handle stress, and as girls get older, the anxiety would probably kill me. As a friend once said, “With a son, you only have one penis to worry about. With a daughter, you worry about ALL OF THEM.”
Katie Jarvi makes her film debut here as 15-year-old Mia, angry and aimless, a creature of pure impulse, and as the film starts, she’s already on a collision course with self-made disaster. She’s angry all the time at her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) for reasons to drift from bad idea to bad idea. Then a new form of chaos enters her life when her mother, after a long drunken night out, brings home a man named Connor, played by Michael Fassbender.
From the moment he shows up, Fassbender injects an uneasy energy into the film, too focused on Mia, too interested in the one thing that seems to crack the grim facade she projects, her dancing. Alone in a room, a stolen beer to loosen her up, Mia dances with abandon, with something even approaching joy. Katie Jarvis perfectly captures that strange, powerful moment when a girl becomes aware of just how much sexual charisma she actually has, and the cat-and-mouse between her and the much-older Fassbender made my stomach hurt from tension as I watched it. Fassbender’s been racking up one great performance after another in the last few years, but he still somehow retains the ability to vanish into his roles. I know it’s the same guy in “Hunger” and “Inglorious Basterds” and this film, but the characters are nothing alike, not even visually. The extreme control of his craft as an actor works in perfect counterpoint to the raw unpolished nature of the work that Jarvis does.
Some truly awful things happen in the film, and even if Arnold gives us some release at the end, it’s still shot through with a bleak melancholy, and it’s a rough ride getting there. Arnold doesn’t offer up easy explanations for Mia’s anger, and she doesn’t let her off the hook with some easy fix at the end. That’s what makes this one linger, and it reaffirms that Arnold is a voice worth the attention.
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