Its fierce and raw teenage heroine
Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, an untrained actress in her debut performance) is an angry and aggressive teenaged girl, liable to head-butt anyone who crosses her. She lives in a bleak Essex housing estate with her skanky single mother (Kierston Wareing) and a spiky tough-talking little sister (Rebecca Griffiths, whose every line is hilarious). Mia’s been kicked out of school, has no friends, and the only thing she cares about is hip-hop dancing – until she meets her mother’s handsome and charismatic new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), who sets her heart and her body a-stirring.
The female gaze on Michael Fassbender’s hotness
Director Andrea Arnold (Red Road) keeps the focus tightly tied to Mia’s perspective. We see what she sees, and feel what she feels, which is a powerful and dangerous attraction to an unsuitable man. Fassbender is shown shirtless in numerous scenes, camera lingering on sculpted torso, jeans precariously hanging from rangy hips. Mia wants him, especially after she’s spied his sensuous and athletic lovemaking to her mother. It’s just so wrong. But there’s no doubt there’s agency in the way she pursues him. Mia may be underage, but she’s no simple victim.
Michael Fassbender’s performance
Fassbender brilliantly conveys hypnotic sexual energy and easy charm. His character’s a cheating and weak-willed love-rat, but the real intrigue involves the fact he’s also a nice guy with a gentle manner and a genuine interest in other people. The simple caring acts he performs for Mia and her sister – Band-Aids on their cuts, talking to them without swearing or shouting – is in stark contrast to their monstrous mother, who at one point tells Mia she almost aborted her (and wishes she had).
The cinematography: bleak has never looked so beautiful
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan has worked with Andrea Arnold on all her films, from Academy Award-winning short Wasp (2003) to Red Road (2006) and most recently Wuthering Heights (2011), which you can watch now at SBS On Demand. With a combination of long takes, urgent hand-held scenes and up-close shots of faces and bodies, Ryan manages to show both the ugliness and confined prospects of lives in a council estate, but also the bursts of beauty: sunlight shining through a window; kids playing in the parking lot; and the quiet eruptions of nature – water, sky and grass – which are always just behind the industrial and residential wastelands.
Inspired by music videos, Mia longs to dance, but she’s not a particularly talented dancer. Her moves are awkward and self-conscious but they speak of a brave (though stunted) soul trying to express itself. Like real life, there’s a lot of bad dancing in this film. Some of it’s funny, and a lot of it’s heartbreaking, but it always advances the story and our understanding of the characters – especially in the amazing final scene, which I won’t spoil for you.
Bobby Womack’s cover of ‘California Dreamin’
The swoony anthem with its lyrics about longing for a warmer climate serves as Fish Tank’s theme song – and the backdrop to both to Connor’s seduction of Mia, and to Mia’s dancing dreams for escape and transcendence. It’s a song worth revisiting, over and over.
It’s tough but never hopeless
You won’t feel like slitting your wrists when the credits roll, and you won’t start mounting a campaign to protest Britain’s class system, like you might with Ken Loach films set in a similar milieu. There’s no political agenda here, and never any condescension. It’s a just a story about a girl. And what a tough and tender girl she turns out to be. Dangerous and volatile, yes, but not doomed.
Watch Fish Tank in full below: