Watch Fish Tank
, which opened at the Screen on Friday, March 12, and you might think: "Wow, that lead actress is great." Seventeen-year-old Katie Jarvis plays Mia, an unruly 15-year-old living in a claustrophobic flat with her mother and sister in a seedy neighborhood in England. As she head-butts other girls in the face, screams at her mother and slathers on pounds of eye makeup each morning, you love her and hate her at the same time—she's loud, rude, spirited and you can practically see the conflict bubbling under the surface.
If you think the actress has done a great job with the character of Mia, you're right. But the truth is, Mia's not a character.
Jarvis was discovered by casting agents while she was arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform in Essex. During shooting, Jarvis was no longer living in her parents' house and spent nights sleeping on her sister's couch; when she slept, that is. She was said to go out drinking most of the time that she wasn't on the set. She had no interest in being an actress or living up her newfound fame (In advance of Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Jury Prize, director Andrea Arnold said of Jarvis: “I don't think she really understands what this means. Festivals and things are not really part of her life"), and while the film was making a splash in critical and festival circles, Jarvis was at home taking care of her one-week-old baby (fathered by the boyfriend whom she was yelling at on the train platform). She does not plan to seriously pursue acting, despite winning the "Most Promising Newcomer" designation at the 2009 British Independent Film Awards. How's that for irony?Since the character of Mia is a dancer, the powers that be were originally scoping out professional dancers to play the part. However, casting a non-dancer in the role could be the best thing Arnold could have done; Jarvis is not a very talented dancer. She works her ass off (she has staked out an empty room in an abandoned apartment building as her own private dance studio), is constantly listening to the hip-hop she likes to choreograph, watches MTV videos intently, and has a steely resolve that could almost pass for that of a pro—but when she actually starts moving, it's really mediocre. Her moves are mediocre and she does them with excessive concentration on her face.
So Mia dances and drinks malt liquor in an abandoned building; her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) dresses provocatively and invites crowds over to drink til dawn; and her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), a sailor-mouthed eight-year-oldf who perhaps gives the standout performance of the entire film, plays dress-up and smokes cigarettes with her grade school friends. When Joanne brings home Connor (Michael Fassbender), it seems like he might actually be a good dude—he has a job, carries Mia up to bed when she falls asleep on the couch, plays games with Tyler, cleans the filthy house and, for the most part, makes Joanne happy enough to be nice to her kids for once. Between day trips to the country and dropping by Connor's work to borrow a few bucks, Mia's life seems to be on the upswing.
Connor takes a particular interest in Mia's dancing. He loans her his video camera so she can send an audition tape into a strip club; he encourages her when she performs stiffly for him in the living room. At first it seems like innocent encouragement, but soon enough it gets a little creepy. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's bound to happen between Connor and Mia, but that doesn't make their uncomfortable actions and cringe-worthy dialogue any less effective. And rest assured, it doesn't end the way you thought it would.
There are slow moments of Fish Tank
; over-lengthy shots of Mia in her sparse bedroom, long stretches sans dialogue, endless images of curtains blowing in a springy breeze. And while I noticed the silence and could have found it awkward, I instead relished in the visuals. Arnold impeccably furnished the dismal apartment, giving it an air of half-assed hopefulness. Night time scenes drag on, but instead of getting bored, watch Mia's face, mascara-crusted eyelashes and all, as she listens to her mother and Connor having sex down the hall. When Mia and her maybe-boyfriend Billy sit awkwardly on couch cushions on the floor of the chilly-looking "dance studio," the silence would be deafening were it not for the shared beer can and a few strange shared glances.
The biggest question the movie raises is—Is every soul worth saving? Mia isn't very nice. She's pretty, but not a supermodel. She's not incredibly talented. She is strong, but doesn't have much of a life's purpose. She could rise above her current state, but would anything ever make her happy? There's no telling, of course, and the answer is probably no, but Arnold directs a visual masterpiece in telling her sad story.
Fish Tank is currently playing at The Screen (1600 St. Michael's Drive, 473-6494).