Fish Tank,reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
Jan. 14 2010 6:22 PM

Fish Tank

An unsettlingly good British film about a teenage girl in a housing project.

Katie Jarvis as Mia in “Fishtank”.
Katie Jarvis as Mia in Fishtank 

Fish Tank (IFC Films), the second film from the British director Andrea Arnold, is being framed for novelty-averse American audiences as a British, white version of Precious. Thematically speaking, that's not inaccurate. Both films tell the grim story of a teenage girl growing up in a housing project, being treated as a punching bag by her messed-up single mother, and having queasy encounters with a sexualized father figure. The big difference is that Fish Tank manages to be about exploitation without being exploitative. For my money—and without opening up the Precious debate again—it's by far the better movie.

The film leaps out of the gate with a jittery handheld-camera sequence, as the heroine, 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), stomps around the grounds of the projects, throwing rocks at an ex-friend's window and getting in a head-butting match with a gang of break-dancing popular girls. It's quickly established that the perpetually angry Mia has no one on her side: She has alienated her friends; her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), is an abusive, alcoholic tramp; and she and her little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), refer to each other as "fuck-face" and "[rhymes with hunt]-face." Mia is teaching herself to break dance for an audition at a local club; she drinks alone in an abandoned apartment in her building while blasting the rap music that's her only escape.


Mia's world is so narrow and bleak that when her mother hooks up with a handsome, employed, occasionally charming guy named Connor (Michael Fassbender), it as though a chink opens up in a brick wall. Connor takes the family on a nature outing and introduces the hip-hop-mad Mia to Bobby Womack and James Brown. He encourages her interest in dancing and weathers her tantrums and insults. He also gets drunk and nails the girls' mother with the door half-open, but when you're as love-starved as Mia, you learn to overlook the small stuff. But trained as she is—by observation of her own blowzy mother as well as by rap videos on TV—to associate being lovable with being desired, Mia can't stop acting seductively toward the man who's the closest thing she has to a father.

Like Arnold's debut film, Red Road (2007), Fish Tank is aggressively straightforward in its depiction of sex. The camera, standing in for Mia's gaze, regards Connor's body with undisguised lust. The moment he first appears onscreen, shirtless in a low-slung pair of jeans, is as shameless a piece of beefcake as you'll find outside of gay porn. When the two finally act on their slow-burning attraction, the scene is unsettlingly hot. The ambiguity of their mutual attraction throws the viewer off balance: Wait, wasn't Connor supposed to be this girl's Paula Patton, the benevolent force who lifts her up and out of the ghetto? (All right, stopping now with the Precious comparisons.) Or are we meant to see him as a child-molesting lowlife? Both? Neither? Instead of shutting down the film's meaning, the sex scenes open it up—a gambit that will no doubt offend some viewers with its unsentimental candor.

Fassbender, who played the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger and the debonair British spy Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, is on the brink of a huge career. Physically reminiscent of a young Kevin Kline, he's long-limbed and sad-eyed, impossible to stop watching. Katie Jarvis, who had never acted before this film's casting director spotted her arguing with her boyfriend on a subway platform, is scarily good, especially in a heartbreaking late scene when, through a plot twist I won't reveal, she observes the life of an adored and pampered middle-class girl, her face a mask of hurt and rage.

Robbie Ryan's cinematography mirrors Mia's inner experience as the camera jolts abruptly through the grim public-housing environs, heedless of momentary blurs or flares of light. There are some missteps in the storytelling, including an overly symbolic subplot about Mia trying to free a chained-up horse. But as a whole, Fish Tank moves forward with such self-assurance—cockiness, even—that it fully earns the emotion of a late scene in which Mia and Joanne experience a rare moment of mother-daughter closeness dancing to, of all songs, Nas' unremittingly depressing "Life's a Bitch."

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.