Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank is an attempt to tell a gritty, realistic coming-of-age story and, in many ways, it fails on both counts. The film's protagonist is the 15-year-old Mia, played fiercely by first-time actress Katie Jarvis. Based on this character, it's tough to say if Jarvis has a future in the industry, but she certainly carries herself well in this film. She was discovered by Arnold's casting director while she was having a fight with her boyfriend at a train station, and this spontaneous intensity is made clear from the first frame of the film. Jarvis, only 18, also gave birth to a daughter in May 2009. From what the stories tell us, it's easy to jump to the assumption that the actress is simply playing herself, but even if that is true, that in itself is no easy feat. She occupies nearly every frame of this picture, and her believability goes a long way towards making this film watchable. I just wish the same amount of courage had gone into the screenplay.
Mia lives a miserable life with her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and her abusive mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). She has been kicked out of school and her only escape comes in her lonely practice of street dancing. Her dancing passion was somewhat of a mystery to me throughout the entire film. She doesn't seem polished enough to get very far with her dancing, yet Arnold forces this infatuation upon us so many times in the film that she must have wanted it to represent some sort of escape. Either way, I think something could have been done to make it more effective.
The family's miserable lifestyle gets some form of a boost when Joanne brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). He is a lively spirit, and awakens an instant attraction within Mia. She knows very well the dangers of pursuing this attraction right in front of her callous mother, and as a result, this friendship develops very slow. It is in this sluggish development that the film struggles to find an even pacing, particularly in the first and third acts. In the first act, Arnold seems unsure as to how much time needs to be devoted to both Mia's inner growth, and her blossoming relationship with Connor. As a result of this confusion, the effectiveness of both of these elements are diminished, and the film suffers a big blow.
That being said, the middle portion of the film is quite good. A whole new dynamic is added to the characters once Mia and Connor become closer. The scenes between Jarvis and Fassbender are the best the film has to offer, but it's a shame the surrounding elements weren't on par, particularly the character of the mother. Joanne is seen in the first few minutes hitting her daughters and yelling at them no end so that we realize just how bad Mia's life is, but then her character virtually disappears. This is a cheap method that Arnold uses to encourage sympathy for Mia, and I didn't buy it at all.
Perhaps the most disappointing element of Fish Tank is the storyline. From a film trying to be so determined and uncompromising, the story is incredibly predictable. Every single time the story had a chance to enter uncharted territory, it did exactly the opposite. I know there are some people who like to watch films and try and be able figure out what's coming next, but I don't find any pleasure out of a predictable storyline. I would much rather be fooled by a film than outsmart it, but the foreseeable narrative makes for a pretty disastrous third act.
If Jarvis wasn't as watchable as she is, I'm not sure there would be any reason to see this film. She sports hoods and sweatpants for the majority of the film, yet her power is never in question. She has a striking, fiery screen presence, and she makes us believe that Mia is a complicated, elaborate, layered young woman when she really isn't. Arnold does a poor job of writing this character. I'm not sure whether this was supposed to be a coming-of-age story or not, but I surely didn't find any noticeable growth in Mia by the film's end. It's tough for me to admit that the only things I'll take away from this film are the fine performances from Fassbender and Jarvis, but Fish Tank just doesn't offer much else.