British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's work history may be brief (three shorts and just two features counting Fish Tank ) but the enthusiastic acclaim for her movies is impressive. Her talent for socio-realist drama, believable portrayals of the disadvantaged and an artist's eye when it comes to capturing their modest homes and impoverished lives has made the 48 year old director a true auteur. Arnold won the Cannes jury prize with her wonderful debut feature, Red Road, but Fish Tank, her follow-up, is the better film. A classic coming of age story about a teenage girl (newcomer Katie Jarvis) attempting to rise above her underprivileged and dysfunctional family life, Fish Tank will receive critical acclaim and strong word of mouth when IFC Films releases the drama in early 2010. More importantly, Fish Tank will exceed the modest domestic earnings of Arnold's debut feature and continue to build her U.S. fan base.
Mia (Jarvis) is a 15 year old teen living in a rundown Essex, England housing project with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and her younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Mia's alcoholic mother is more interested in her new boyfriend ( Hunger ’s lean Michael Fassbender) than her two daughters. With her heart turned rock solid from loneliness and rage, Mia seeks escape by Hip Hop dancing in a vacant apartment to the music from her boom box. Mia wants a job dancing at a local club. She craves a better life but the many challenges that frequently accompany poverty stand in her way.
Shot near Arnold's hometown, Fish Tank is a working-class drama that's also a feminine response to the more male-centric dramas of British filmmaker Ken Loach. It's also a believable teen story reminiscent of classic youth movies like River's Edge and Elephant.
Katie Jarvis makes her acting debut in Fish Tank, (she was discovered by a casting agent arguing with her boyfriend on a train station platform) and she makes Mia a compelling, believable waif in a grey sweat suit and heavy eyeliner. Mia is front and center in almost all of the film's scenes with an emotional range extending from dark sadness to explosive anger. Jarvis, just 17 at the time of the film's shooting, makes every moment authentic. Granted, Mia is a character close to Jarvis' own life but her natural performance and ease with the camera earns her a shot at future film roles.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan makes beautiful use of the bleak housing projects and surrounding industrial buildings in the stunning film. Yet, Ryan also emphasizes the ponds and scenic wetlands that surround the housing projects. These pockets of nature represent Mia's hope for a better tomorrow.
Shooting Fish Tank in a 1.33 aspect ratio turns out to be one of Arnold's best artistic decisions. The intimate visual scale of the film suits the working class characters and their modest lives perfectly. It's also worth noting that Arnold filmed Fish Tank in sequence, which helps explain the cinema verité spirit of the drama. Every scene is visually striking. More importantly, there's not a line of dialogue or performance that feels false.
IFC Films opens Fish Tank in early 2010 and it's an impressive addition to their release slate. While the coming of age genre is a familiar one, Fish Tank stands apart as a more challenging artfilm for a select following of specialty film buffs. With expected theatrical earnings far greater than her debut feature, Red Road, Arnold will continue to build name recognition with U.S. moviegoers and more audiences will discover Fish Tank via VOD and home video. Perhaps, by her third feature, audiences will recognize Arnold as a talent equal to Gus Van Sant or Ken Loach. She's certainly deserving of the comparisons.
Cast: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing and Rebecca Griffiths
Director/Screenwriter: Andrea Arnold
Producers: Kees Kasandar
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: January 15 NY