Fish Tank November 17, 2016
Mia Williams is her very own Petco betta fish, trapped in a plastic cup filled with lukewarm water and longing for a change of scenery and maybe even a friend. Put her somewhere spacious or place her next to another of her kind, though, and she’ll fight her ass off — not because she’s inherently a beast but because she’s never known how to do anything besides use hatred and spite as a way to defend herself. Trying a little tenderness wouldn’t hurt, but who would she try that said tenderness on? With nothing and no one to love as much as a tot loves their teddy, perhaps even that aforementioned betta fish is better off than she is; life expectancy is shorter and the days aren’t so bad when you don’t have to do much with your everyday existence besides stare into space and swim about mindlessly.
But unless Mia dies young as a result of an accident of some kind, whether it’s really accidental or something playing with fire-y a la hard core drug use, expected is a life that’s never going to have a single moment not coated in misery. Though fifteen, an age where most teenagers are grappling with changing bodies, identities, relationships, Mia’s self-hatred and fury at no one in particular is at no different a stage than it’s ever been — this is a girl who’s never known what it’s like to be loved.
Her mother is a bottle blonde alcoholic with a fondness for partying and a fondness for talking to her children like pestering pet pups with a knack for getting into trouble. She’s seen as an outcast in school, perpetually pointed to as the erratic angry girl you’d be wise to avoid. Obvious is that no one is ever going to reach out to try to help her. Obvious is that Mia is going to go nowhere in life besides wherever the thing called hardship takes her.
Played by Katie Jarvis, an accidental actress who became a full-fledged leading lady after she was spotted melodramatically arguing with her boyfriend on the subway, Mia is one of the most pathetic, but most heartrending, characters of twenty-first century cinema. We don’t feel as though we’re watching a figure go through the motions of fiction but a real-life ne’er-do-well standing as an embodiment of all young women of the lower class that are never going to make it in adulthood.
No illusions are in store in Fish Tank (2009) — here is a searing portrait of a teenager so unconcerned with optimism that it’d seem wrong if there ever were a moment of unrestrained joy to be had. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold in a fashion reminiscent of the British “kitchen sink” film movement of the 1960s, the film is comprehensively bleak but also comprehensively investing. Success, or, even sadder, happiness, is never going to become a part of Mia’s awful life, and yet we’re so drawn to watching her spiral down further than the rock bottom that she’s already at because we’re so naively confident that something good will happen to her.
Nothing, of course, ever does, though there are a few instances in which Mia, but definitively not us, believes that the fulfillment that’s eluded her for so long has finally arrived. First leading her on is the affection she receives from her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (a superb Michael Fassbender), who’s handsome and charismatic and kindhearted but unwisely lusts after her and burns them both in the process. Next is a dance audition — one of her few passions is busting amateurish moves to the sounds of hip-hop — that turns out to actually be a try-out for a gentleman’s club joint. Last, and I suppose the least (but still very) gloomy “resurgence” of them all is the finale that finds Mia running away with a young man who seems to care about her. But such is only temporary, and, like everything in her life, the conclusive act of spontaneity is bound to head in a tragic direction.
But because Jarvis is so extraordinary (this movie will stand as her most iconic moment — she’s done very minimal work since 2009) and because Arnold’s artistry is authentic rather than manipulatively emotionally exposed, Fish Tank is coercively gritty and endlessly watchable. Realism has never looked so good. A