Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is the anti-coming-of-age film. A BBC film shot last year in the United Kingdom, it centers on a 15-year-old girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who stubbornly refuses to “grow up.” Hiding behind a mask of anger and profanity, Mia represents the conflicts of adolescence – she is bold and self-conscious, cynical and sensitive, rough and sensuous. A lack of emotional support from her family and her contempt for other girls her age mean that she is completely independent out of necessity. Without guidance, her reactions are always impulsive in a childish and sometimes ridiculous way. It’s almost perversely fascinating to watch Mia jump from one mistake to the next.
Heavy breathing opens the first shot. We are introduced to Mia dancing in an isolated apartment, looking down onto the bustling city below. Her temper is aggressive – picking a fight with her former friend and her posse on the street, Mia head-butts the other girl’s face before walking away – but swings between anger and compassion. A few minutes later, she tries to free an emaciated horse, not once, but twice, before two of its owners (both men) catch her and hold her down ruthlessly.
Mia’s relationship at home is no less complicated than her temperament. She battles daily with her abusive mother and her equally hot-tempered little sister (who, though she appears no older than 12 or 13, drinks and smokes with her friend while watching TV). When her mother brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), Mia is immediately attracted to his physicality and his cheerful mood, a bright spot in the midst of the anger surrounding her. Unresolved tension arises between her budding sexuality (despite her baggy sweats) and Connor’s subtle, but telling, interest in her. Yet for all the attitude Mia throws around, at heart she remains a child from the beginning to the end. Her coping mechanism is to push away her issues and exact revenge with a toddler-like mindset: After a particularly difficult morning, she gets drunk and plays an exuberant game of hide-and-go-seek. Unlike most teenagers who are caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, she pursues the happiness and immaturity of childhood without another thought.
Jarvis, a first-time actor, portrays the whole of Mia’s character, contradictory as it may be, rather than trying to explain the conflicts away by revealing an “inner character.” Jarvis hides Mia’s scattered emotions behind an impassive expression, a façade she only brings down when Mia is at her most vulnerable. Her performance is both raw and moving, a refreshing reprieve from the jaded perspectives of older, more experienced actors. Fassbender, in contrast, brings ease to his role that only experience can provide, and foils Jarvis’s volatile character. He resists being pigeonholed into a typical older man pursuing a younger girl; instead, Fassbender portrays Connor as deeply flawed but good-hearted. After staring at Mia’s hips, he leaves her with an apologetic cup of coffee, and the attention he pays to a cut on her ankle is more tender than explicit.
The cinematography is a highlight of Fish Tank. Fast-paced moving sequences dominate the film, and there are no smooth transitions from one scene to another. Several scenes of Mia running away (which happens often) are shot roughly with a bouncing hand-held camera. Lighting serves as another area of experimentation, and the film features rapid transitions from complete darkness to the harsh morning light and filtering dark, expressive scenes with warm colors. Arnold’s past experience with short films is clear: Though the audience is unceremoniously shoved into the scene, each one develops naturally on its own. Her intuition-based direction style works naturally with Mia’s personality to create a piece that appeals to the emotional instinct of its viewers.
Like adolescence itself, intuition is never clear-cut, and Mia’s decisions, though rarely the “right” ones, have a refreshingly unpredictable quality. Driven by instinct over analysis, the raw emotion of the film lends authenticity to its portrayal of the teenage years.