Fri 5 Mar 2010
Finally hitting theaters stateside is the recent winner of the BAFTA Best British Film Award, “Fish Tank”. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, the film is about a 15 year-old girl spinning out of control, living in a situation that only makes her spin faster. Think “Thirteen” but without a mother who wants to make things right.
Casting a film like this is one of the most challenging aspects, as finding an actress to both embody chaos engender sympathy is difficult. Arnold was resolved to cast people with little to no acting experience and discovered her lead character (Katie Jarvis) arguing with her boyfriend at a train station. This lack of formal training allowed for a very believable character; a volatile, tempestuous girl looking for happiness but finding little but disappointment. Perhaps the only area where casting Jarvis worked against the film was her lack of dance experience. The character takes a lot of pride in her dancing and it’s clear that this budding actress isn’t going to win “So You Think You Can Dance” – however, as awkward as some of the early scenes can be because of this, it does work overall once more of the character is developed throughout the film.
Of course, Jarvis’ performance wouldn’t seem nearly as impressive if the other actors around her weren’t up to the task. Kierston Wareing, playing her mother, is the quintessential example of a woman who had kids too young and isn’t able to recognize when it’s time to stop partying and start being responsible. Blaming her is too easy and almost unavoidable but doesn’t acknowledge that there’s most likely a cycle of bad decisions that’s happening. Rebecca Griffiths plays the younger sister and does so with a ferocious and almost reckless abandon (swearing, smoking, drinking). The entire social scene around these three women is a self-perpetuating trap and the question of the film is if any of them can break free.
To do so for Jarvis however, she must first navigate the waters of Michael Fassbender – her mother’s new boyfriend. At first, she hopes that he will prove to be a stabilizing influence on the family. However, there’s a growing attraction between the two and as his own personal boundaries won’t win any ethical or moral awards, the resulting actions throw Jarvis’ world for a loop. What began as another tale of teenage infatuation gone wrong takes a turn and a series of poor, impulsive decisions make for some of the most tense moments on-screen in years. It’s at this point that Arnold’s visions pays off, where the audience truly realizes that Jarvis’ character is capable of anything because she’s got nothing more to lose.
Fassbender plays his part wonderfully, showing off his character’s flaws but always keeping it right on the edge of something sympathetic. As we find out more about him, some of the poor decisions are given context – though the actual implications for what he will do in the future might only sink in well after you’ve left the theater and cause you to wonder about any sympathy you felt during the film.
Standard coming-of-age films are normally quite safe and skim the surface of harsher reality, here Arnold has taken off the blinders and plunged us into a disturbing situation but thanks to her direction, a good script and a remarkable performance by Jarvis, we never stop caring for the main character. This was reminiscent of an excellent Australian film from 2005, “Somersault“, and despite a few moments that feel a bit out of place, “Fish Tank” is a thought provoking story of a girl looking to find her place in the world – a 4 out of 5.