Movie review: Ann Hornaday on the coming of age film "Fish Tank"

Growing pains: Katie Jarvis as a girl on the cusp of change -- and disaster.
Growing pains: Katie Jarvis as a girl on the cusp of change -- and disaster. (Holly Horner/ifc Films)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

Is "Fish Tank" a movie only a woman could make?

The question has fresh resonance, considering the past year in movies, when female directors -- from mainstream veterans Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers to art house favorites Lynn Shelton and Jane Campion -- made an exceptionally strong showing in theaters. The trend reached its peak, of course, with Queen of the World Kathryn Bigelow, whose visceral, taut military thriller, "The Hurt Locker," earned nine Oscar nominations earlier this week, including one for Bigelow herself for Best Director.

In their range of themes, genres and aesthetics, movies made by women in 2009 finally gave the lie to the notion of "the female perspective," proving that women, like men, can't be reduced to one taste or sensibility.

But now along comes "Fish Tank," by British writer-director Andrea Arnold, which more than any of its sister films offers credence to the notion of the female gaze. The story of a 15-year-old girl named Mia (played by newcomer Katie Jarvis), who lives in a drab Essex housing block with her 30-ish single mother and little sister, "Fish Tank" lives up to its name as an examination of characters trapped in close quarters, trying to survive choppy emotional waters.

As the movie opens, Mia is practicing a hip-hop dance in an empty apartment in her building; she then leaves an angry phone message with an estranged friend before walking in a simmering rage to throw rocks at the girl's window. In those few brief moments, viewers come to know a spiky but vulnerable girl prone to explosive bouts of rage and equally potent moments of deep feeling, such as when she comes upon a tied-up horse in a litter-strewn parking lot and furiously tries to liberate it.

With her razored hair, raccooned eyes and the impulsive, wary energy of a sparring prizefighter, Mia is instantly recognizable as a girl on the verge of everything -- life, sexuality, promise, disaster. But as respectful and sympathetic as Arnold is to her protagonist, that in itself can't be attributed to her gender. After all, one of 2009's most compelling portraits of a girl coming of age in similarly distressing circumstances, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," was directed by a man, Lee Daniels. Even Arnold's extraordinarily sensitive framing and composition -- the unexpected moments of bucolic lyricism she injects into Mia's otherwise gray, disordered world -- reflect an assured, intuitive visual approach shared by male artists (Charles Burnett, David Gordon Green and Gus Van Sant, to name just a few).

Where Arnold's female gaze kicks in is when Mia's mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), brings home a boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender), and the volatile ecology of "Fish Tank" becomes even more roiled. A gentle, protective presence, Connor is the first person in the film to treat Mia with anything approaching tenderness or support.

"You're great," he keeps repeating, and viewers can sense her turning toward him like a parched, dying plant, thirstily absorbing his praise. But it's clear, too, that Mia herself isn't quite sure if she's attracted to him as a father figure or a lover. And Arnold doesn't offer her -- or, by extension, the audience -- any clues.

When Fassbender makes his first entrance, he's shirtless, his chest and lower back seductively presented for Mia and the viewer's admiring consideration. Later, when he's changing clothes while chatting with Mia, Arnold lingers on his body approvingly, charging the moment with frank, disquieting eroticism.

Thus does "Fish Tank" dance on the knife edge of threat and desire, even when Connor seems utterly without guile (in one scene he literally charms the fish right out of the water). What's more, Arnold confronts head-on the fraught relationship between Joanne, who presumably gave birth to Mia while in her teens, and her now-teenage daughter. There are no gabby "Gilmore Girls" bonding sessions in "Fish Tank," nor the polite, unspoken tension between Carey Mulligan's precocious 16-year-old in "An Education" and her tight-lipped mother. Here, Arnold addresses the sexual competition between mother and daughter directly. And she's careful to present Mia not as a sexualized Lolita figure or even the Audrey Hepburnesque mini-adult that Mulligan turned into, but as a girl unsure of her own identity and drowning in mixed messages.

In fact, on its surface, "Fish Tank" is probably most easily compared to "An Education" -- both are stories of teenagers coming of age in Britain under the tutelage of a kind, older man (and, what do you know, the latter was also directed by a woman). But while audiences left "An Education" with the sense of a moral universe restored, Arnold gives no such reassurances. As Mia's story takes its twists and turns, the filmmaker leaves the precise motivations and inner lives of her characters vexingly opaque.

The cumulative effect for viewers is one of profound unease; they're not entirely sure what to make of what they've just seen, quite similar to the ambivalence many felt about Bigelow's apolitical war picture. More than another "Education," "Fish Tank" might be the "Hurt Locker" of troubled, trembling adolescence: tough, explosive, intimate and bruising. Like Bigelow, Arnold is supremely comfortable with her audience's discomfort. Whether their shared gaze is female or not, it's one that doesn't blink.

Fish Tank

* * * 1/2

(122 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains pervasive profanity, sexuality, smoking and teen drinking.

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