Friday, March 11, 2011

Spotlight: Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2009, 122 minutes)
Netflix: The life of hot-tempered teen outcast Mia (Katie Jarvis) takes an unexpected turn when her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), brings home a handsome and mysterious boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender), who pledges to bring sweeping positive changes to the household. British writer-director Andrea Arnold's sophomore feature won Best British Film at the 2010 BAFTAs. Netflix link.

Director Andrea Arnold has had a great deal of success on the international film festival circuit after leaving her earlier career as a presenter on the children's television show No. 73. Her short film, Wasp (2003) won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival and eventually won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2005.  Her feature debut, Red Road (2006) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and The Observer listed it at #20 in their list of the best 25 British films of the past 25 years.  Red Road is also available for streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly.  And most recently, her latest film Fish Tank also won a Jury Prize at Cannes, as well as Best Film at the 2010 BAFTA Awards.  Time Out listed Fish Tank at #84 on their list of the top 100 British films ever made.

The cast of the film is superb, led by newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia, and Michael Fassbender as her mother's new boyfriend, Connor.  Mia lives with her mother and younger sister in a public housing complex in Essex, and there is not much hope in that environment.  Mia aspires to be a hip-hop dancer, inspired by images in music videos, but unlike the other girls who practice their moves for the boys in the courtyard, Mia practices by herself in an abandoned flat.  Mia meets a boy named Billy when she tries to free an malnourished horse from Billy's brothers, but Billy does not engage her curiosity as much as her mother's new male companion, Connor.  Connor encourages Mia to audition for a dancing job, and loans her his camera for an audition tape.  The relationship between Connor and Mia moves uncomfortably from a generous Connor standing in as a father figure to a drunk Connor behaving inappropriately with a impressionable 15 year old girl.

While this may sound bleak (and it is) the film also provides a wide palate of textures to share dimensions of Mia's experience.  The staging and cinematography alternates between stark documentary realism to beautiful, lyrical imagery.  Too often filmmakers adhere to the shaky-cam school of social realism, but while the camerawork here does allow for loose, hand held scenes, it also produces several vivid moments with light and color.  A few sequences stand out in this regard.  First, when Connor picks up a drunken Mia to take her from her mother's room to her own room, Mia only pretends to be asleep as Connor prepares her for bed.  A camera angle suggests Mia's perspective as she tries to watch Connor without his realizing that she is watching her.  This both confirms the awkward tensions between Mia and Connor, and foreshadows more troubling developments later in the film.  The cinematographer Robbie Ryan is confident to allow such moments to go into deep shadow and amber highlights, rather than being exclusively interested in conventionally crisp cinematography.

Other moments with memorable naturalistic lighting include when Connor drives Mia, her mother and her sister to the countryside, and much later, the turning point when the relationship between Mia and Connor takes an unfortunate turn after a night of drinking.  In the car interior in the countryside, the exposure for close-ups of Mia is set for the brightness of exterior of the car, allowing her face to fall into a grainy shadow.  And in the pivotal scene with Mia and Connor, the room is lit by an amber streetlamp outside the apartment window as Mia gets feedback on her dance routine from Connor.  Neither moment is particularly flashy in terms of technique but they provide the kind of imagery that neither conventional Hollywood dramas nor ultra-realistic independent dramas seem to be interested in anymore.

Much of the film's emotional impact comes from alternating between understanding the world a bit better than Mia does at some times, but comprehending harsh realities at exactly as she does at other times.  When she breaks into Connor's house late in the film, neither she nor the audience notices important details that only stick out when Mia herself has pieced together who Connor really is in his life away from Mia and her mother.  At other times it is just as painful to be several steps ahead of Mia, especially in regards to her dancing ambitions and our understanding of her talent.  Near the end, as she tries to re-establish a friendship with Billy and she discovers that Billy's horse has died, we understand more than Billy does why she has to break down in tears.

Rather than just objectively observing Mia's world at a distance, director Arnold guides us to engage with Mia's world physically and emotionally, from the sights and sounds of the housing complex to the raw feelings of a young girl with very little to look forward to.  The deceptively simple style of the film obscures the meticulously crafted imagery and narration, so that some images and revelations seem to sneak up on us even though we have been thoroughly prepared for them.  There are no villains in the film, only people who are trying to do the best they can, but they make some horrible decisions. Mia herself is not necessarily the most sympathetic character, but her world is vividly portrayed in a manner that leads us to understand her a bit better.

While Fish Tank is not necessarily the most upbeat film, and the final interaction between between Mia and her mother is far from the most hopeful moment recorded in the cinema, the film does not leave you completely hopeless in the end.  It does leave you hopeful that Arnold will continue making films in such an uncompromising manner, with as much insight and artistry as she has so far.     

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