Fish Tank, recently awarded a 2010 BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, follows the hardscrabble life of one 15 year-old girl living in an Essex housing project in Southeast England. Life among these high-rises isn’t easy, and one of the few things the teenage Mia (newcomer Jarvis) does to escape is dance — to hip-hop with moves she’s cribbed from music videos. It’s a relatively minor detail that snowballs into disarming poetry: Arnold’s choice of Nas’s, “Life’s a Bitch” — with its haunting chorus of “Life’s a bitch and then you die/ That’s why we get high/ Cause you never know when you’re gonna go”— becomes a sympathetic soundtrack and heart-wrenching sidebar to Mia’s life.
And Tank belongs to Mia. She’s defiantly frail, a teenager whose skinny frame doesn’t curtail a mouthy attitude, and willful, wide eyes that drink in everything around her. Jarvis, in fact, looks a bit like The Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel, a precociously self-contained reed of an emerging young woman, but it’s hard to imagine Rory headbutting a peer — which is exactly what Mia isn’t afraid to do to an ostensible friend who Mia feels has cadged one of her dance moves. Mia purposely strides around her housing project in sweats, trainers, and a hoodie pulled up over her ponytail, seeking refuge in empty flats where she can turn up her boombox and dance by herself.
In the UK, Mia would pretty much be a textbook chav — a working-class teen in need of an attitude adjustment according to social services. In fact, a social worker does pop into Mia’s flat to inform her mother, Joanne (a feral Wareing), that the expelled Mia could be destined for a pupil referral unit, a place where students end up when they fall through the cracks of the traditional educational system. If that situation registers with Joanne, it’s hard to tell: She spits a stream of bitter invectives at Mia anytime her daughter is within earshot. Mia and her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) fondly refer to each other as “fuckface.” Their father is — who knows. If he’s around or even living, he’s never even alluded to in the movie. The flat is a mess of used plates and, after a party, empty bottles and cans. Even the family dog is named Tennet’s — a brand of lager equivalent to a malt liquor in the United States.
Arnold, though, isn’t interested in treating Mia as a statistic or cautionary tale. Mia is the tanked fish in this world, and Arnold constantly frames Jarvis as if she’s trapped by the very edges of the screen. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan appears to shoot everything hand-held and intimate, stalking Mia in her determined walks around town, as if she’s constantly trying to escape the limits of the screen and her existence, although right around the corner is the same sort of council flat and wind-turbine-riddled landscape she’s always known. Fish Tank is far from perfect, but its hard-edged imperfections, as with life, are what give it such a lasting power. — Bret McCabe