British Filmmaker Scores with Her Second Feature
Male coming of age movies are plentiful but ones focusing on girls are few and far between. The new British film “Fish Tank” (opening March 5 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) focuses on a teenage girl living in England’s impoverished Essex.
“Fish Tank” opens with fifteen-year-old Mia calling a friend.
Mia: Katy what’s going on I left three messages. I said sorry, you know what I’m like.
We never find out what caused this rift or who this friend might be but in the volatile world of a sullen teenager it doesn’t really matter because there’s always something to be mad about. So Mia tears through her neighborhood like a bull in a China shop, eventually stopping to watch some popular girls dancing suggestively in the courtyard.
Mia: You’re a terrible dancer that’s my problem…
The tomboyish Mia head butts the cute girl in hot pants and a tank top, and that pretty much sums Mia up. She’s always banging her head against something. The teenage girls blatantly flaunting their sexuality anger Mia because they cop out to a stereotype of femininity she’s not buying into.
“Fish Tank” is the second feature from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Once again she displays an unflinching honesty and refreshing lack of moralizing as she explores contemporary British working class life. Mia’s been kicked out of school and lives with her young mother and little sister. Her mother doesn’t provide much of a role model, and doesn’t even notice the attraction that quickly develops between Mia and mum’s new boyfriend, Connor.
Connor: Don’t mind me girl, carry on I was rather enjoying it.
Arnold understands how teenagers are. They act tougher than they are, they want to rebel against just about everything, and they can’t be told anything. Plus they are discovering their sexuality yet are also still immature kids that can’t be expected to know what’s best. So Mia’s initial reaction to Connor is open hostility. Then she reveals her love of hip-hop dancing to him and shows him a flyer for an open audition.
Connor: You going to go for it?
Mia: I might.
Connor: You should, you’d be great.
His interest and support surprise Mia. She doesn’t get much of either from her mom or anyone else. But there’s a creepiness to Connor’s interest in her, as in this scene where he gives her a playful spanking.
Connor: That’s for sneaking up on me…
Connor seduces Mia, and she completely falls for his act. Yet she’s not a complete innocent either. She’s testing her sexual powers and at the same time is painfully naïve. Arnold plays the scenes between Mia and Connor effectively and with an odd beauty. Their scenes are frequently shot in tight close ups with a hint of seductive slow motion. Of course Mia falls in love and has a rude awakening.
Connor: How’d you find me.
Yet Arnold refuses to paint Connor as a complete monster. She doesn’t condone his behavior in any way but rather presents him as a flawed human being. As Mia discovers these flaws “Fish Tank” develops similarities with Arnold’s feature debut, “Red Road.” Both films deal in part with revenge from a distinctly feminine vantage point.
She also benefits from working with Katy Jarvis as Mia. Jarvis is not a professional actress but someone the director found and who genuinely has something in common with the character Mia.
Arnold, Jarvis and Mia all seem to be fighting the same thing and that’s the limiting way society often looks at women. This is made all too clear at the audition where Mia, in her unrevealing but comfortable sweat pants, is asked to let her hair down.
Woman: That’s a lot more feminine, that’s lovely. Do you have any hot pants?
No, Mia does not have any hot pants. And neither she nor Arnold wants to buy into that stereotype. So they both choose to rebel. Arnold as an artist has a means of expressing that rebellion in a constructive way but we’re not so sure of how Mia’s rebellion will ultimately play out.
“Fish Tank” is an impressive if rather bleak second feature from Arnold. She refrains from both sentimentality and condescension as she presents a vivid look at the tumultuous life of a British teenager.
Companion viewing: "Red Road," "Ratcatcher," "24/7"