Ostracised by her friends and excluded from school, Mia (Jarvis) is a lairy teenager living in a high-rise block with her mother and younger sister. One day her mum brings home an enigmatic stranger (Fassbender) who is to cast a spell upon them all...
Set on an estate caught between the sprawling fringes of London and the countryside leading out to Essex and the coast beyond, Andrea Arnold’s bucolic yet grimy second feature is an unlikely heartbreaker. Played out against the pockmarked A13 and the leafy environs set at its borders, Fish Tank is a social drama of cramped interiors and maladjusted lives abutted by scenes of breathtaking countryside, the latter courtesy of Robbie Ryan’s expansive cinematography.
It’s a well-worn path of tormented lives in tower blocks and dysfunctional families pulled to pieces by the departure of a father figure, but the central performances make the whole thing fly. At its heart is Mia (a searing debut from Katie Jarvis, who was spotted by Arnold arguing with her boyfriend at a train station), a disconsolate 15 year-old only happy when she’s chugging cider and dancing alone in an abandoned flat in her block. Her angst is matched by her mum’s (Kierston Wareing) scorn and younger sibling Tyler’s (Rebecca Griffiths) droll rebuttals. All three share the philosophy that the best form of defence is attack, and spend the first half of the film going off in each other’s faces like cheap fireworks.
When a half-naked Connor (Michael Fassbender) ambles into their kitchen one morning and pays Mia a compliment on her dance moves, she reacts like a startled animal that has never known love — bared teeth and disbelief. She’s even more confused by his generosity, especially when he makes time for them all as a family, though just below the surface is a brimming sexual tension between daughter and would-be dad that floods the lens: Connor slowly dresses a cut on Mia’s ankle and you’re surprised he doesn’t lick the rest of her leg. Mia is a jumble of longing and need; Connor, playing the man of the house one moment and protracted tease the next, is a knotty enigma that she can’t fathom.
It’s the duo that are central to the film’s success, their final protracted meltdown an unnerving exercise in the sickening feeling that betrayal brings and the unformed yet overwhelming desire for revenge at any cost. The final shot of a heart-shaped balloon rising up over the estate allows one last brief feint at hope.
A vivid portrayal of life at societys margins with a compelling turn from newcomer Jarvis. Little wonder it scored at Cannes.