(Co-Winner of the Jury Prize w/ Thirst at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival)
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank tells the story of a 15-year old girl whose family life is in chaos as she finds solace in her mother’s new boyfriend to take up street dancing. A coming-of-age film set in Britain, it is also a realistic portrayal of a young girl who feels unloved and alienated by the world around her. Starring Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway, and Michael Fassbender. Fish Tank is a harrowing yet enchanting coming-of-age film from Andrea Arnold.
Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis) is a foul-mouthed 15-year old girl who lives in a housing project in Tilbury with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Mia is also someone with no friends and doesn’t go to school as she spends a lot of her time alone practicing her street-dance moves and walking around the streets of Tilbury where she comes across a white horse. On one particular day, Mia discovers a man in her apartment as it’s her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) as he takes Mia, Tyler, and Joanne on a road trip of sorts.
Mia enjoys Connor’s presence as he also enjoys her dancing while she also befriends one of the owners of the white horse in a 19-year old boy named Billy (Harry Treadaway). Mia learns of a dance competition coming as she asks Connor for help as he gives her a camera that she can film herself and send it for the audition. Yet, Mia remains intrigued by Connor as they hit it off despite the fact that he’s dating her mother whom she doesn’t like very much. Still, Mia is anxious about her performance as the relationship with her and Connor intensify leading to some issues. Even as Mia would make some discoveries about Connor that would change everything about their relationship.
The story of a young girl who finds solace in street-dancing to cope with her unhappy home and social life might seem like a premise that Hollywood would use to make it an inspirational story. Fortunately, that’s not what the film’s writer/director Andrea Arnold is going for as she aims for a film that follows this young girl’s journey. Yet, Mia Williams is a character that isn’t a perfect one like all girls in real life. Yes, she is a foul-mouthed, volatile, selfish young woman who often does things including head-butting other girls or shouting at her younger sister. Still, like Antoine Doinel of the films by Francois Truffaut like The 400 Blows, is a girl who feels unloved by her mother who is more like a young woman than a mother.
When Connor comes into Mia’s world, she finds someone who is like a father figure to her as he encourages her to dance and such. Yet, he is treated like scum whenever her mother is around as it suggests that Mia has some feelings for Connor. Still, it plays off as a father-daughter thing but as it progresses. It becomes something much though it’s followed by a series of complications that would change Mia’s perspective on Connor. This would follow by events that would not only impact Mia’s own sense of the world as well as the little amount of innocence she had left in her youth. Arnold’s script succeeds in studying Mia while creating characters such as Joanne and Connor as real people who are flawed but also have something about them that makes them enjoyable.
Arnold’s direction is truly mesmerizing in the way she follows Mia in her journey of growing up as it’s shot on location in Tilbury as well as other places in England. Yet, there is something beautiful in the way Arnold presents things in a town that is very working class and not very clean in a lot of places. Arnold’s direction has a mixture of hand-held work and steadicam camera shots to dwell into Mia’s journey while her framing is presented in a full-screen format. The decision to not use the widescreen format is probably because Arnold wanted something that is intimate and direct. The overall direction of the film is superb as Arnold creates a captivating drama about a girl in need of a future in her dreary world.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does a phenomenal job with the photography from the colorful yet naturalistic look for many of the film‘s exterior scenes including some nighttime scenes. Yet, a couple of interior shots such as Mia dancing in an empty room or at her apartment are filled with wonderful yet gorgeous lighting schemes to portray its mood. Editor Nicolas Chaudeurge does a superb job with the editing in maintaining a leisured pace for the film along with rhythmic jump-cuts for scenes of Mia practicing her dancing in a few key scenes.
Production designer Helen Scott and art director Christopher Wyatt do an excellent job with the look of the Williams‘ apartment along with the decayed trailer area that Billy lives in with his horse. Costume designer Jane Petrie does a very good job with the costumes from the scantily-clad clothing that Joanne wears to the street, hip-hop inspired clothes that Mia wears throughout the film. Sound editor Joakim Sundstrom does a brilliant job with the sound work to capture the chaotic atmosphere of the apartment with televisions on all the time to the world that is Tilbury.
The film’s soundtrack that is assembled by music supervisor Liz Gallacher is a mixture of hip-hop and soul music that dominates most of the film. Among the tracks that are played in the film are from artists like Nas, Ja Rule, Gang Starr, Cassie, Eric B. & Rakim, James Brown, and a great cover of the Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ by Bobby Womack that serves as the centerpiece of the film’s soundtrack.
The casting by Jill Trevellick is amazing for its realness as many of the actors that appear in the film are either non-professional for first-time actors. Memorable performances include Sydney Mary Nash as a young girl Mia encounters, Rebecca Griffiths as Mia’s precocious yet foul-mouthed little sister Tyler, and Harry Treadaway as a 19-year old boy named Billy whom Mia befriends. Kierston Wareing is excellent as Mia’s mother who is very neglectful and abusive most of the time unaware of the hurt she’s bringing while being someone who wants to remain youthful which includes a great moment of her, Mia, and Tyler dancing to Nas. Michael Fassbender is superb as Connor, Joanne’s new boyfriend who provides encouragement and attention to Mia while being a father figure of sorts despite the fact that he’s also got a secret to hide. Yet, Fassbender doesn’t make his character creepy though he’s a flawed individual who likes to drink and watch TV as it’s a remarkable performance from the Irish actor.
Finally, there’s Katie Jarvis in a towering debut performance as Mia Williams. Jarvis’ fiery performance is truly spellbinding in the way she acts out her frustrations along with the way she shouts. At the same time, she proves to be a capable street dancer that has a lot of talent without being too flashy and such. It’s a raw yet hypnotic performance from the young actress who is surely to become someone to watch in the years to come.
***Additional DVD Tidbits Written from 3/25/13-3/30/13***
The Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection presents the film in its original 1:33:1 theatrical aspect ratio with Dolby Digital Surround Sound as it’s all approved by its writer/director Andrea Arnold. The DVD features a slew of extras relating to the film as well as three short films by Arnold.
The 1998 short Milk is the story about the aftermath of a miscarriage in which a woman is numb in her loss where she goes into an impromptu road trip with a stranger. It’s a very fascinating yet chilling short that features Lynda Steadman in the leading role as well as Stephen McGann as her boyfriend who buries their stillborn child. The 2001 short Dog is about a teenage girl who steals money from her abusive mother to buy weed with her boyfriend as she encounters a stray dog that she falls for only for something innocent from the dog leads to a traumatic moment. It’s another gorgeous short from Arnold that explores a young woman’s innocence in a poor part of town as she finds small joy in this stray dog.
Finally, there’s Arnold’s 2003 Oscar-winning short Wasp starring Nathalie Press and Danny Dyer about a young mother with four kids who meets an old friend as she decides to meet him in a pub while the kids wait outside. It’s a very compelling short about a young woman being torn in being a mother and trying to live the life of a young woman. It also reveals what these kids are going through when they have to fend for themselves that would involve a wasp as it’s definitely a brilliant short.
The 14-minute interview with Kierston Wareing has the actress talking about Arnold’s directing process as Wareing compares it to some of the attributes of Ken Loach whom she had worked with in It’s a Free World…. Wareing also discusses about the character that she played as someone who is selfish and obviously irresponsible where Wareing knew it wasn’t an easy character to play. It’s a very engrossing interview with the British actress who reveals a lot about Arnold’s filmmaking style and how she directs actors.
The 26-minute audio interview with Michael Fassbender is from a January 2010 public conversation at Museum of Moving Images in Queens, New York City as part of its Pinewood Dialogue series with curator David Schwartz. Fassbender talks about the film, Andrea Arnold, and co-star Katie Jarvis where he reveals some tidbits about the film’s production as well as his view on his character. Fassbender also revealed that the film was shot in chronological order as well as without a script that allowed the actors to improvise and play things out naturally. It’s a very fascinating interview to listen to as it reveals a lot of Fassbender’s views on acting and films as well as a funny story about Fassbender directing a stage version of Reservoir Dogs where he played Mr. Pink.
The 10-minute audition footage features 10 dancers who auditioned for the film as each young woman show their dancing skills where it’s definitely a highlight of the special features content. The DVD also includes a trailer and a still gallery showcasing many pictures of the film itself. The DVD also includes a booklet that features an essay film scholar Ian Christie entitled An England Story. Christie’s essay reveals a lot about the film and its importance in British cinema as it continues that tradition of British working-class cinema. Yet, Christie reveals that Andrea Arnold brings something new to the table since it reflects on the lives of women and the uncertainty that Mia faces in her environment. It’s a very engaging essay from Christie as the DVD itself is another highlight from the Criterion Collection.
***End of DVD Content***
Fish Tank is a magnificent yet intense coming-of-age film from Andrea Arnold featuring Katie Jarvis’ powerful performance. Audiences of real British dramas will no doubt see this as one of the best films of that genre while be amazed into the story of a young girl living a world of misery. Even as it serves as a breakthrough for both Andrea Arnold and Katie Jarvis as Fish Tank is a stunning achievement for those two women and British independent cinema.
© thevoid99 2011