If I’ve taken away anything from Andrea Arnold’s films, it’s this: I’m glad I watch them alone. I don’t even think I want to watch Fish Tank or Red Road with my girlfriend…Arnold’s films are incredibly engrossing and challenging, but both films also feature female centers who get caught up in grotesque situations. In Red Road, our female hero was actually the fucked up one, who forced herself into the dilemma. In Fish Tank, however, we have a 15-year-old impressionable girl who is influenced by those around her and explores the world of sex and alcohol with her mother’s boyfriend, Connor.
Oh yeah, and Connor’s, like, 30-years-old. Maybe older? Does it matter? Doubling your sex partner’s age is usually grounds for speculation. And it’s troubling to watch our main character, Mia (Katie Jarvis), dabble in such provocative activities in a setting where rules barely exist. The film has little story, but instead purely focuses on Mia’s excursions, which include drinking, sex, stealing and a whole lot of dancing. Not dirty dancing though; you know, actual dancing. Whatever the kids are doing nowadays.
So that’s my plot synopsis. Hope you’re satisfied…anyway, in regards to the dancing: it’s the one admirable and promising aspect of Mia. Dancing exposes her dreams, her weaknesses and her buried emotions. She’s the daughter from hell, who resembles a younger Lily Allen (hell, she probably acts like a younger Lily Allen) and is hell-bent on being rebellious. But she doesn’t even know why she wants to be rebellious—other than it pisses her mom off. But when Mia dances, from auditioning to performing in front of the television, her face changes. Her eyebrows unfurl; she loosens up; she calms down. It’s the only time we see her motivated to succeed.
We’ll come back to the dancing. Surrounded by the dancing, which itself takes up a very small part of the film, Mia experiences of a lot of confliction. As a teenager who could not begin to understand the consequences and complexity of sex, pop culture and her mom’s slutty friends constantly lead her astray. Mia watches a man finger a woman in her kitchen, and then she watches Connor and her mother passionately have sex. Her perception of sex is so distorted and fantastical that by the time she’s taken advantage of by Connor (Michael Fassbender), the reality of the situation comes across frightfully poignant.
Mia’s crush on Connor reveals her for the wonderful person she is and we rarely get to see. Arnold creates three incredibly beautiful and memorable instances involving Mia and Connor that reveal Mia as a romantic. The first is when Connor gives her a piggyback ride, the second involving Mia sniffing Connor’s cologne, and the third when she watches his clothes dry tenderly in the wind. In these scenes time slows down, but the sound remains normal, creating a slight delay between the action and dialogue. It creates a hazy, wistful moment where Mia using her senses amorously and we understand her feelings.
It’s these moments that separate an Arnold character study from most films. Nothing is ever thrown in your face or presented in a nice package with a bow; the emotion exists within Mia, yet we feel every aching instance in her struggle with reality. Fish Tank is very much about the person Mia is versus who she wants to be; yet we know exactly what road she’s heading down as the film approaches its inevitable climax. We’d like to think Mia wouldn’t crack under the pressure of sex; but she gives in. We’d like to think Connor is the good guy he presents himself to be; but he isn’t. And despite our defensive intentions for the characters, they end up becoming real people engaging in something cruel that is very much part of our own reality. Despite all these factors, we are nonetheless tortured by the film’s images and forced to deal along with Mia.
It doesn’t help that Arnold uses every simple trick to engage the audience with the environment. The scene where Mia and her younger sister smoke and drink in their room is a great example. They watch the television loop its endless trash, which resonates in the background while Arnold flashes still shots of toys, stickers and bright colors that contrast the situation at hand. Oh, and the damn caged hamster that perfectly reflects Mia’s depressing situation. We are trapped in this unforgiving world with Mia, and my God if it isn’t fucking frustrating.
Watching Mia discover Connor has a secret family is like experiencing an entirely different film. Mia’s reaction is stunning, as she opts to “kidnap” Connors daughter. It becomes clear that Mia doesn’t even know why she does this, as she keeps leading the girl further and further away from home with no destination in mind. Mia throws the girl into the river, which seems to be her way of inflicting physical pain on Connor. But the whole scenario, including its conclusion of Connor finding Mia and slapping her, represents Mia’s cleansing; the smack brought her back to reality. What was she doing with her life? I mean I know she’s just a kid, but talk about wasted youth. As a child who spent the better part of her days causing mischief, Mia’s giant does of reality opens her eyes and helps her mature.
We see it in the film’s conclusion, where Mia goes to her dancing audition with Connor’s favorite song as her backdrop. She’s dressed in a baggy sweat suit as she looks out on her adversely dressed competition, and she suddenly realizes dancing no longer holds the promise she once associated it with. She grew up longingly watching music videos and popular girls from school dance, and somewhere in the ambition, the passion was lost. Did dancing have to be a career? But then we see Mia, as she is leaving for school, approach her mother to say goodbye. They don’t physically embrace, but instead they dance with each other, never breaking eye contact or concentration. It’s so incredibly moving…I hate even trying to describe it. It’s the perfect icing on the cake; much more dazzling and cogent than any hug, kiss or cheesy movie quote could ever strive to be.
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