Foregoing the AFI Fest Centerpiece Gala The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus last night in favor of a film far less likely to get a North American release, I went to see the Cannes Jury Prize-winner Fish Tank, the second film from already-acclaimed director Andrea Arnold (Red Road). It’s fortunate that Fish Tank is an excellent movie because otherwise I would have had a problem being objective.

Fish Tank centers around 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her slatternly mom (Kierston Wareing) and little sister (Carrie-Ann Savill, smart-mouthed and very funny) on a tower block council estate in Essex, east of London. Even without preconceptions, it’s clear from the start that it’s a grotty place of constant swearing and antagonism, knee-jerk resorts to violence and cheap booze (even their dog’s named after a beer). Mia loves to dance to R&B and one morning finds herself being watched in her kitchen by a handsome topless Irishman Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mom’s new beau. As he puts it, Mia’s got a mouth on her and as he sticks around looking like a potential Dad-Charming, their relationship develops erratically but with an exquisitely uneasy sexual charge.

At the same time, she develops a tentative relationship with a local pikey who necks cough mixture and takes car parts from the dumping yard. All the while, she’s under the threat of a remand school, when all she wants to do is dance. The climax is precipitated by a foolish decision in which Mia is coerced, knowing no better, which results in a very stupid and nearly fatal outcome. But this is no bleak council estate movie, by the end she’s made the very wise decision that she should have made earlier, as well as another that augurs hope.

Arnold has been at pains to describe the movie as one about people, rather than “lower-class people” and the film’s moral turpitude lies not in the estate but in a row of wannabe-bourgeois new homes in a nearby town. It might be tempting to think of the estate as the fish tank, where people mill around between the imprisoning tower blocks, trapped forever. An interpretive trap is even laid on the family’s river outing when Connor states that “no-one comes here and the fish are stupid”. But in fact, the fish tank is the long window of the empty upstairs apartment in which Mia privately practices her dancing, a fish tank of the self, through which she can see the vast expanse of London and a future of infinite possibility.

This is only emphasized by the 4:3 shot framing, which is a fine formal choice but something of a shame given that aside from the impeccable acting and direction, the photography by Red Road’s Robbie Ryan is just wonderful. The lighting, angles and composition constantly betters itself and makes a traditionally drab existence quite beautiful without meretriciously prettifying it. But it’s Katie Jarvis’s film, a first-timer like most of the cast, and she’s remarkable, incredibly self-assured both when acting but also when gazing pubescently at Connor, or caught in the morning light, fresh-faced despite the pimples in strawberry pajama bottoms, as the vulnerable child she still partly is.

Rating: 8.97/10

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