DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Andrea Arnold's second feature, "Fish Tank," won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It's a coming of age story of a complicated teenage girl from a high-rise London housing project. It opens today in New York and is available on demand from IFC Films.
Film Critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: From the start, I knew the British director Andrea Arnold had captured something volatile and splendid in her second feature, "Fish Tank." A girl named Katie Jarvis plays London East End 15-year-old Mia, who in the first shots stares out the window of a high-rise, working-class project from a vacant flat where she practices hip-hop with tiny speakers. Mia has been phoning and phoning her best friend after a bad fight, and she heads out angrily and finds and confronts the girl in a yard, practicing hip-hop with other girls. And one calls her 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 handheld 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 non-actress, 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. Arnold's acclaimed first feature, "Red Road," centered on another outsider, a woman who monitored security cameras and spied and 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 mom's very handsome new boyfriend, Connor, his attentiveness throws her. Connor is played by the terrific chameleonic Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who shows up at breakfast without his shirt while Mia is watching and imitating a hip-hop video.
(Soundbite of movie, "Fish Tank")
Mr. MICHAEL FASSBENDER (Actor): (as Connor) Go on Mia, carry on. I was enjoying it.
Ms. KATIE JARVIS (Actor): (as Mia) (Unintelligible).
Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Connor) (Unintelligible).
Ms. JARVIS: (as Mia) No.
Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Connor) (unintelligible).
Ms. JARVIS: (as Mia) (Unintelligible).
Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Connor) Okay. I'm a friend of your mother. You dance like a black. That's a compliment.
Ms. JARVIS: (as Mia) And what would you like?
Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Connor) To watch videos, like everyone else.
Ms. JARVIS: (as Mia) And that makes you some kind of expert, does it?
Mr. FASSBENDER: (as Connor) (unintelligible).
EDELSTEIN: 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's 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.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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