White Tank Top reviews Fish Tank

Put this one on your queue.

written by Kirk Michael

When Fish Tank began with a mother-daughter screaming match, I thought I might be in for the white Precious. It eventually became clear that Andrea Arnold’s breakthrough film is actually a better version of An Education. Where Dawson’s Creek-esque Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan worries about getting into Cambridge as if it’s life and death, the astonishing Katie Jarvis worries about actual life and death.

Her character, Mia, roams Essex, a kingdom of blight mostly populated by shirtless young men and their pit bulls. A major theme in the movie, the repercussions of Mia’s persistently bad instincts, is established early on when she tries to free a malnourished horse that’s chained alongside a trailer, only to be rebuffed by some of the aforementioned young men. A handheld camera follows right beside her as she keeps coming back until being assaulted and relieved of her CD player. Then she waits a day before returning for it, talking trash, bullheaded as ever.

Mia’s education, as much as she has one (attending school seems unimaginable in Essex), is in hip-hop dance, which she observes on YouTube then practices in an abandoned apartment.  Her dream of being a professional dancer propels much of the narrative but our suspicion of just what kind of “dancer” is desired by a solicitous slum club owner clouds hope of a happy ending. [More after the jump.]

In everything she does, Mia is trying to escape her toxic home environment, where her mother Joanne (the bedraggled but alluring Kierston Wareing) provides little in the way of food or warmth but does offer many televisions to her children (always tuned, it seems, to grating reality TV). The domestic mood lightens when Joanne’s new friend Connor (Michael Fassbender, above) brings a couple different kinds of six packs to the party. Where An Education is stuck with a tense and creepy Peter Sarsgaard, Fish Tank benefits from the sexy and relaxed Fassbender, who is a shockingly good actor for someone who so resembles Matthew McConaughy. After a sleepover, Connor has the good manners to invite the whole family out for a drive, charming even Mia’s disturbed little sister who pays him her ultimate compliment: “I’ll kill you last.”  Fassbender’s performance is also of great subtlety—I admire a lingering shot of his fingers on Mia’s shoulder, considering, considering their next move.

"I’ve listened to NaS’ “Life’s a Bitch” many times but I’d never heard it until the last sequence of Fish Tank."

While carefully composed scenes of gritty streets can be just as clichéd as imagery of trees changing season, Arnold is at her best finding surprising beauty in the Essex projects. I would never have guessed sodium streetlights streaming through a filthy window could provide such romantic light, but they do. In one scene, Mia is bathed in that beautiful red-orange glow as Connor deposits her in bed.  The soundtrack merges with beat of her heart and the shot is from her point of view, framed by the crook of her elbow—it’s a stunning presentation of a drunken haze, full of tenderness and trouble.

While the energy of the film never flags (Mia is in constant motion), the intensity is ratcheted to an almost unbearable level in the last twenty minutes thanks to a handheld camera that gets ever shakier as our heroine goes completely off the rails. To describe how the ending made me feel, I have to borrow a concept from the immortal White Men Can’t Jump: I’ve listened to NaS’ “Life’s a Bitch” many times but I’d never heard it until the last sequence of Fish Tank. I was shaken when the credits rolled for the first time since seeing Half Nelson. Fish Tank is already gone from theaters but you can put it at the top of your queue now.


White Tank Top is a blog written by Kirk Michael, a Seattlite who loves film and, we think, writes about it really well. Stay tuned for more biweekly posts on the CAB, where WTT reviews films of all genres and box office rankings.