We were supposed to go up north this weekend but an unexpected illness with our cat and a visiting friend from NYC had us changing our mind at the last moment. I'm sad not to see the cottage in the winter but I've got so much work to do that the extra-long weekend will surely fly by. Feeling a little, ahem, under the weather (read: hungover) meant the RRHB and I settled down this afternoon and watched Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold's exceptional film about a 15-year-old girl growing up in a terrible housing development in England (somewhere in Essex, if the NY Times is to be believed).
Fish Tank captures a moment in young Mia's life so raw and dangerous that you spend almost 100% of the film crushing the pillows on the couch in your fists you're so worried about her. Raised by a mother who spends more time drinking, smoking and fucking than parenting and a accompanied by a younger sister who's on exactly the same path does not a great environment make. Mia's rage, frequent and unyielding, coupled with her hormones leaves her confused about her life; she's terrifically naive but unyielding and street smart, and her life has her running just about everywhere. It's as if her mouth, frequently swearing and often pouting, is connected to an even shorter fuse; she has no frame of reference for happiness, she makes it all up as she goes along, and it's a miserable life.
Enter Connor (Michael Fassbender from Hunger, another great underrated film) and he's electric. He's Mia's mother's new boyfriend, comes into the kitchen shirtless and unannounced, watches her try out some dance moves as she boils water for tea. He's got a great smile, he's encouraging, and for a moment you can't tell whether he's sinister or simply friendly -- it's a balance that Connor achieves for most, and I highlight most, of the picture. Without any positive male roll models, hell, without any role models at all, it doesn't take long for Mia to react to his kindness; she's got a crush, but has no way to properly express herself. Connor takes advantage of the situation but for a while you give him the benefit of the doubt, especially after one majestic day they spend out of the city.
Self-taught, Mia practices her hip-hop, dance crew moves in an abandoned apartment above her own, drinking to stay numb (I'm inferring) rather than drunk, she practices and practices, imagines it's the way out. Encouraged by Connor, she applies to audition for a local club -- plain as the nose on your face the kind of dancing it is -- but Mia doesn't realize, has her dreams resting on becoming part of a crew. She's awkward, angry and frequently explodes, but you can't help but want her to just get out because she's also endearing, honest, and smart beneath her dirty jumpers and too-black eyeliner.
Arnold keeps the camera close to Mia at all times, up tight and in her face, echoing the character's personality. It's summer and there's a lightness to the housing project -- but it's unbearably bleak too -- kids are outside having fun, but it's not good honest fun, it's "what are they up to now" kind of fun, and you imagine half of them will either be on drugs or in jail over the course of the next few years. Little hope spills out all over the concrete and even when Mia stares out into the distance, to the city and country beyond, you get the sense that there's no freedom in the view, that even if she wanted to she couldn't leave.
There are plenty of words one could use to describe Katie Jarvis's Mia. Her performance is raw and heartbreaking, and seems to come from a place she knows well. Apparently, she was discovered while having a shouting match with her boyfriend at a train station -- Fish Tank is her first feature film. It's the kind of performance that feels so real, that elicits such an emotional response, that you can only praise the director for working in such a way to capture it on film. It's one of my favourite films so far for 2009. Certainly a million, gazillion times better than the dreck that's Avatar. Not an honest moment in that film, that's for sure.
[Um, ew, should I be freaked out that the Google Ad Sense ad that sat beside me while I was posting this review was for teen Christian counselling? /Shiver].