Friday, April 8, 2011

Fish Tank (2009)

Katie Jarvis in a career-making performance

Andrea Arnold's sophomore feature Fish Tank is, quite simply, one of the best films of the last ten years.  Had it just had Arnold's pitch-perfect, naturalistic script, or the sumptuous cinematography of Robbie Ryan, or the typically tremendous performance from Michael Fassbender, or the dazzling turn from newcomer Katie Jarvis -- any one of these elements alone would have ensured this film critical notice.  But that this film brings all of these to the table guarantees that it will only grow in stature as more audiences are introduced to its riches.

Katie Jarvis plays 15-year old Mia, a suspicious and guarded youth living with her mother and younger sister in low-income housing in Essex.  Mia is a prickly character, prone to fits of rage and violence, yet she is the product of her environment, the metaphorical fish tank of the title.  Her mother is still an adolescent herself, in all but age, emotionally and financially ill-equipped to provide for her daughters.  The trio seem incapable of expressing familial affection; the only tongue they're fluent in is cursing and screaming.

Outside is no better.  As Mia prowls the streets scamming money for booze and seeking refuge from her miserable home life she is beset on all sides by a world that is at best indifferent to her needs and often downright hostile -- she is hounded by a pack of girls her age who seem to hate her for her refusal to sexualize herself as they have; she's nearly raped by a group of guys who catch her trying to free a horse she believes is being starved.

If all this sounds unbearably depressing, believe me when I say this is not your typical indie "poverty expose," all grit and hopelessness.  First, there is the sun-drenched cinematography of Robbie Ryan which is simply a wonder to behold.  Ryan never fails to find the beauty in even the starkest of environments with warm, bold colors and a masterful command of the camera's field of view.  In one particularly lovely scene, Mia dances in an abandoned apartment at night.  We see her from behind, a silhouette framed by the window.  The camera's focus shifts sleepily between her moving form and the lights of the night sky until, for a moment, they seem to be but one kaleidoscopic display of light and shadow.  Thus the audience gets to share in the feeling of peace and escape that Mia finds in her dancing.

The second reason why this film never becomes depressing is that Arnold's script never wallows in the relative squalor of its setting.  Although the ubiquitous TV serves as a constant reminder of Mia's place in society (particularly when we see younger sister Tyler watching a MTV Cribs-type show in which a vapid young woman shows off her decadent home), this is no political screed.  We need to understand the setting because we need to understand Mia, and it's that focus on the particular rather than the cliche of the general that sings life into every scene.

Fassbender and Jarvis getting closer

The relative stability of Mia's home-life is disrupted when her mother brings home handsome security guard Connor (Michael Fassbender).  Mia is suspicious of Connor precisely because he seems so trustworthy.  Unlike anyone else in her life, he is not a font of hostility, but rather he treats her entire family with affection and compassion.

In one amazing scene that Arnold fills with all of the tension of the best horror films, Mia has passed out on her mother's bed after stealing a bottle of vodka from her mom's party.  Connor carries her to her room and puts her in bed and all the air is sucked out of the room as he begins to undress her.  His actions here dance along the line between paternal affection and a predatory sexuality, and we in the audience are on the edge of our seats to see which side of the line he ends up on.

Fassbender proves here, yet again, that he is one of the greatest actors of his generation.  His character calls for him to be by turns charming and sleazy, yet never lose our basic sympathy.  That he remains an understandable character even after he has violated one of our society's deepest taboos speaks volumes both of his skill as an actor and of the tremendous script from director and screenwriter Andrea Arnold.

Mia arms herself against the world.

In the end, however, the most important element to this film's success is the breath-taking performance from Katie Jarvis.  Like Virginie Ledoyen in A Single Girl or Irène Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique, Jarvis is asked to carry the entire film on her shoulders.  She is in virtually every shot; her subjectivity defines the film.  So much of the movie is spent watching her observing those around her, negotiating her world and its limited possibilities of escape.  That she can take the audience through a very, very dark third act and offer a promise of hope, however small, indicates that Katie Jarvis is a major new talent that I'm certain we'll be seeing much more from in the future.

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