Criterion Collection DVD Review: Fish Tank (2009)

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If an aquarium is too small, fish being housed in the tank may become stunted – overwhelmed and doomed to give into their environment – unable to fully grow and mature to the level that they should.

While being a contemporary teenage girl is a little like being a fish on display in a tank anyway given the overly-sexualized roles young women are pushed to perform as mirrored back on television through music videos and reality shows, it's twice as hard when the emotional fish bowl experience is also physical as lived in the veritable fish tank of a modern day housing project.

For regardless of how much has changed over centuries the one thing that's stayed the same since the days of Ancient Rome is the treatment of the “have nots” by the “haves” in power in governments around the world, which have opted to house society’s working classes in tight living quarters.

Whether it’s in the American “projects,” Scottish “schemes” or English “council estates,” et al. it’s become common practice to cram hundreds upon hundreds of disadvantaged and diverse strangers in tenements, knowing full well that the environments will stunt the growth of generations given the byproducts of violence, drugs, prostitution, and/or gangs that some of the “fish” in the ill-equipped tanks turn to in an attempt to survive.

And in the aptly titled Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winning Fish Tank, Oscar winning British filmmaker Andrea Arnold plays against mainstream cinema’s tendency to tackle these issues with either pitch-black or rose-colored glasses via exploitative gangs, guys and guns gritty crime movies or uplifting underdog tales of breakdancers or ballerinas who become Broadway stars.

The result is a refreshingly realistic, painful yet poignant female-centric portrait of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a restless, angry fifteen year old girl with an uncertain future who’s fully aware that she’ll be trapped in the same Essex council estate she shares with her disinterested, abusive overgrown “party girl” mother (Kierston Wareing) if she doesn’t break free.

Literally butting her head against all that she knows in the film’s extended opening sequence as Mia uses her head to break the nose of an old group of friends who’ve turned their back on her, her desire to escape manifests itself in her love of hip hop dancing and her fruitless, futile attempts to free an old horse that’s chained up down the road.

Even hearing that the horse is ill, near death and likewise best left as is on the property doesn’t prevent Mia from returning again and again, stubbornly sure that like her, the horse must be longing to run free and needs an accomplice to assist in the getaway.

Mia finds an enigmatic, charismatic accomplice all her own after becoming fascinated and – to our alarm – finding her growing attraction reciprocated by her mother’s staggeringly handsome, new young beau Connor, played by Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre and Hunger star Michael Fassbender.

The opposite of a Mena Suvari like American Beauty or young Lolita, prone to wearing baggy pants and ponytails in stark contrast to her bikini clad foul mouthed little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), the less overtly sexual Mia is at once flattered by the paternal attention of Connor as she is confused yet drawn in by his lingering gazes and conspiratorial connection to encourage her love of dance.

Whereas in someone else’s hands, this set-up could’ve easily abandoned its roots as a fly-on-the-wall docudrama and become a salaciously sudsy melodramatic two hour soap, Arnold never wavers in her starkly matter-of-fact Ken Loach by way of Truffaut’s 400 Blows styled approach, despite the fact that it’s pretty easy to predict two of the plot twists regarding Connor long before they’re revealed in the final act.

Unflinchingly realistic to a near-excruciatingly intense fault in an overly long segment wherein Mia rebels in the harsh light of new information by taking her frustration out on a completely innocent party, to Arnold’s credit, even when the work changes course and we find ourselves in a horrific situation, the emotional payoff feels completely natural and true.

Following in the footsteps of post-World War II Italian neorealist filmmakers who cast amateurs in lead roles, Arnold’s Fish Tank is anchored by an amazingly authentic debut performance by newcomer Jarvis who was discovered having a public argument with her boyfriend at a railway station.

And similar to the way that parents don’t always know where there kids are, what they’re doing or what the day will bring, Tank was filmed chronologically with strict adherence to the Loach technique. Namely, the first-rate cast only received the pages for the scenes they’d be filming one week at a time and with no intentional information of what occurred in shots in which they didn’t take part until – as in Wareing’s case – they saw the completed film at Cannes.

And fortunately emphasis on realism on set wasn’t lost in translation via this filmmaker supervised and approved Criterion Collection debut which was crisply transferred with “2k resolution from the original 35 mm camera negative” and also boasts a trio of Arnold’s short films including the Oscar winning Wasp.

In addition to other behind-the-scenes featurettes, the Criterion release also offers one of its strongest essay booklets in recent memory thanks to an exceedingly well-written piece from Scorsese on Scorsese co-editor Ian Christie that analyzes Fish Tank’s significance and relation to thematically similar British fare, while applauding Arnold’s refreshing and cinematically rare decision to make her “fish” an independent young woman.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.