Fish Tank, dir. Andrea Arnold (2010)
There are movies I see every once and a while that remind me why I watch in the first place. If that seems clichéd, let me assure you that Andrea Arnold’s second feature, Fish Tank, is not. Here is what we hope for and rarely get: urgency without manipulation, intimacy without bland sentiment, shock without exploitation.
The camera never leaves Mia, our reckless, British, 15-year-old protagonist. She aimlessly wanders her white trash environs, never in school, drinking and getting into fights with anyone she finds. The first thought we have is not that she’s troubled, but, rather, what the hell else is there to do? Her slutty peers are no better, and we sympathize with her further when we’re introduced to her trashy mother Joanne, dancing half-naked in the kitchen, punctuating her steps with slaps to her children.
Mia’s escape, too, is dance, but this isn’t a Lifetime movie, so it doesn’t play out as we fear it might. Her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor, takes an interest in her ambitions, but doesn’t seem to be only interested in that. We root for their friendship with great reservations. Mia gets a boyfriend, too, of sorts, but he’s not the man of her dreams nor is he a bad influence. He gives her attention, and that’s good enough.
This is the kind of movie you expect, because of its intensity, to be a brisk 80 minutes, but it’s over 2 hours. The tone changes rapidly, as aimlessly as Mia herself, and things get heavy at a certain point, out of left field. It begins like a Dardenne picture but develops an arc. I didn’t mind.
It takes risks and succeeds; why not cast a teenager you see at a train station screaming at her boyfriend? And why not end the film with a moving, hiphop dance to Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch”? I wouldn’t expect Fish Tank to work, if I saw it on paper, but it does. Along with Ballast and Wendy and Lucy, this film’s arrival indicates that the Western avant-garde has finally re-awoken. Thank god.