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."