Bird Watching – Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank”

The protagonist of the 2009 indie drama Fish Tank radiates anger. Mia is 15, lives in a working class area of Essex with her mother (drinks too much, spouts hate) and little sister (foul-mouthed beyond her eleven or so years), and seems to have lost any childhood friendships she might have once had. She stalks the area surrounding her apartment complex, lashing out at anyone in her path. In a vacant flat, she’s made a kind of hideaway, where she throws some of that anger into the one thing she seems to like: hip-hop dance. She practices a lot.

We learn all this in the first five or six minutes of the film. By the end of the sequence, I was totally invested in Mia. She’s not an easy character to be around, and while her circumstances make her rage understandable, it doesn’t excuse the way she treats other people. But she entrances in her own way, and I was fascinated to see what she would do next. And I rooted for her. I felt protective of her. No one should be written off at the age of 15. I remember the psychic pain of being a teenage girl—some cry, some purge, some channel everything into achievement. Some act like Mia.

This was the actress Katie Jarvis’s first film. I’ve read that she was spotted by a casting assistant while having a fight with her boyfriend at a train station, and subsequently recruited. Her performance is authentic and raw and fairly amazing. If she wants this to be her career, I sincerely hope she can find more roles that match her.

Mia’s mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing) begins seeing a handsome man named Connor, played by the recently-quite-famous Michael Fassbender. His first encounter with Mia is him wandering shirtless into the kitchen after spending the night, catching her off guard as she’s testing a dance move in front of a music video, in pajamas and waiting for water to boil. She snaps from sincerely intent on what she was doing to defensive shoulder-shrugging and quip-making, with maybe one second of embarrassment visible before it’s shoved away. (Jarvis—I’m telling you.) They banter a bit. Maybe Connor seems different from the kind of guy Mom usually brings home. We don’t really know, but we can infer a bit.

Connor’s relationship with the family seems to become serious rather quickly. He’s nice to them. Little sis kind of adores him; Mom certainly does. Mia lets her wariness fall away a few times, and though it always springs back, we see moments of real connection brewing. We also see moments that carry a note of warning. Looks that last too long. Over-familiarity. Then, when Connor takes everyone on a drive to the country and they have a bit of an adventure catching a fish, we see a little real joy in Mia, and can no longer ignore the danger lurking. This is not a girl who often gets to have new experiences. The promise of that could lead her somewhere dark.

I’ll not say much more about where the film goes from there. Some turns are not at all surprising, and we dread their arrival; others are unpredictable and anxiety-inducing. There are parts that are hard to watch. Overall, though, even as we go to unhappy places, the film doesn’t convey a message of hopelessness. Mia is expressive and clever under her intense anger, and in one particular scene near the film’s close, where a situation turns out not to be what she expected, she shows that she’s become more savvy about how to navigate her world and recognize what people might want from her that she shouldn’t have to give. The environment of the film feels real, and while that means it is bleak in a lot of ways, we’re not being preached to or manipulated within that. The nuance and possibility that are ever-present set this film apart from a lot of similarly-themed indie dramas. There are also individual scenes that are so entirely unique and odd, but springing from such a place of realism, that they make anything you might term “quirky” pale in comparison…and I like quirky movie scenes.

In many ways this is a coming of age film, and in my opinion good coming of age films for female characters are still too rare and very welcome. But Fish Tank stands a little off to the side of other films in the genre. Without the standard best friend to confide in for beneficial exposition, we’re actually left in the dark about how much “coming-of” Mia has already done. And while we know she’s learned something, the film’s ending is hardly concrete about where she’s headed. It’s refreshing, actually, to see a film acknowledge that while a few summer weeks can be very significant in life of a young person, they probably won’t change everything forever.

Andrea Arnold, already an Oscar winner for her 2003 short film Wasp, solidified a name for herself as a filmmaker to watch with Fish Tank, which she both wrote and directed. It won a number of awards, including the Jury Prize at Cannes, a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, and a British Independent Film Award for Best Director. The film was released last month on DVD and Blu-ray as a part of the Criterion Collection, a great accomplishment for any filmmaker, but particularly significant for a female filmmaker, as they are currently under-represented in the collection. The Criterion edition includes among its extras Wasp and two other short films by Arnold. I urge you to check it out.


Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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