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'Fish Tank': A Teen Adrift In A Tough London Suburb

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'Fish Tank': A Teen Adrift In A Tough London Suburb

Movie Reviews

'Fish Tank': A Teen Adrift In A Tough London Suburb

'Fish Tank': A Teen Adrift In A Tough London Suburb

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122585823/122618061" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Katie Jarvis

First-time actress Katie Jarvis plays 15-year-old Mia, a confused and troubled teen. Critic David Edelstein says casting a nonactor can sometimes be just a stunt — but director Andrea Arnold hit the jackpot with Jarvis. IFC/IFC hide caption

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Fish Tank

  • Director: Andrea Arnold
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

With: Katie Jarvis, Rebecca Griffiths, Carrie-Ann Savill, Toyin Ogidi, Grant Wild

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'Don't Mind Me'

'Fishing'

From the start, I knew the British director Andrea Arnold had captured something volatile and splendid in Fish Tank. A girl named Katie Jarvis plays 15-year-old Mia, who in the first shots stares out the window of a high-rise, working-class tenement in London's East End — the window of a vacant flat where she practices her hip-hop moves to the sound of music from tiny speakers.

Mia has been phoning and phoning her best friend after a bad fight, and she heads out angrily to find and confront the girl, who's also practicing, outside with other girls. One calls Mia "skanky," and Mia instantly — like lightning — head-butts her and breaks her nose. As she stomps away, you can feel her insides churn, and Arnold's hand-held camera is both on her and with her. Rage, shame, defiance, longing: There's emotion in the camera's every jitter and swerve.

Jarvis is in nearly every shot of Fish Tank. She has soft eyes, but her Mia is angry and defensive and has a dirty mouth; she has a feral quality that keeps you watching her closely for fear of missing something. Mia's dancing helps to channel her feelings, but despite big dreams she's no Billy Elliot, and her accent and snaggly English teeth remind you where she comes from. It's her energy, her attack that convinces you she won't go down without a fight. In interviews, Arnold said she wanted to cast a nonactress, and Jarvis was discovered on a train platform having a fight with her boyfriend and didn't believe the casting agent who approached her was for real. Lots of directors say they're going for nonactresses and it rarely pays off; but in this girl Arnold hit the jackpot.

Arnold's acclaimed first feature, Red Road, centered on another outsider, a woman who monitored security cameras and spotted — then spied on — a man from her past. The film was formally brilliant, nearly wordless in its first half, but it didn't have the abrasive power of Fish Tank. Mia is constantly under siege by her mean and narcissistic mother, played by Kierston Wareing, and even by her nasty kid sister. So when she meets her mum's very handsome new boyfriend, Connor, his attentiveness throws her. Connor is played by the chameleonic Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who shows up at breakfast without his shirt while Mia is watching and imitating a hip-hop video.

That scene and others between Mia and Connor will conjure up so many different emotions in different viewers that a chart of one's responses would zigzag more than an electrocardiogram. The erotic charge is strong, and so is our sense that Connor has more in common with Mia than he does with her mother, who is older than he is and often drunk. So too is the sense that a relationship between Mia and Connor would be wrong — and perilous. In its outline if not its milieu, Fish Tank bears a resemblance to the English art-house hit An Education. But it has what that overrated film doesn't: something fevered and amorphous that suggests its characters are unsure of their own motives, and that they're swimming, as the title implies, in a world with few options.

Near the end, Mia is overcome with rage, and on impulse does something shocking, nearly unforgivable. The sequence goes right to the verge of tragedy, but the final scenes have a transcendent mixture of hope and sadness that lifts kitchen-sink realism to the realm of dramatic poetry. In Fish Tank, nothing for Mia goes right, yet her fate never seems preordained. Her constant motion, whether dancing, hurling obscenities or recklessly charging ahead, might be her salvation or her doom — but you don't know, even in the last frame. That's a sign of this movie's open and deeply humanist vision.

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