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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.19.09] movie review drama

Year: 2009
Directors: Andrea Arnold
Writers: Andrea Arnold
IMDB: link
Clips: link
Trailer: link
Review by: projectcyclops
Rating: 9 out of 10

[Editor's note: projectcyclops loved this film and said that the press screening was so packed, people were even sitting on the floor. I'm jealous.]

Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) spends her time avoiding school, nicking cash, drinking cider and practicing dance moves in an empty council flat, on the estate where she lives with her single mother and younger sister in London. She argues with just about anybody who crosses her and within the first minute of the film she’s head-butted a girl who gives her a bit of lip. When her mother angrily demands to know what the hell’s wrong with her, Mia’s pointed response is, “You’re what’s wrong with me!” Katie Jarvis is the star of Fish Tank and her incredible performance should go down as one of the best of this year, especially given that she’s not a trained actress, and was cast after someone spotted her arguing with her boyfriend in a train station, while she was unemployed and homeless.

Mia’s mum has a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender – Hunger), he’s a softly spoken and handsome Irish fellow who enjoys a bit of banter with Mia and seems to make her hard drinking, irresponsible mother happy. When they first meet he spies her in the kitchen, dancing to a Black Eyed Peas video on television, she eyes his sagging trousers as he reaches up for a mug from the cupboard and lets a small smile creep onto her face as he turns around and tells her, “You dance like a black.” Slight pause, “And I mean that in a good way.” Connor encourages Mia to apply for a dance audition and, although he’s far from the ideal role model (lending her cash for booze), he seems to be one of the only people in her life with whom she can connect.

The other man in Mia’s life is a 19 year-old-car mechanic who lives on a junk yard with his brothers and their elderly white horse. During one of her attempts to free the chained animal, she’s caught and bullied by them. Returning to look for her stolen purse, she takes a shine to the young man and they go looking for Volvo parts while chugging cough syrup, and after some success Mia announces that it’s time to, “Get wasted!” Such is her life. Mia and her little sister Taylor accompany Connor and their mother on a drive to the country, where he teaches Mia to catch a fish, helping her when her leg is cut. It’s telling that the fish they caught, while planned for a big dinner, ends up being thrown to the dog, and it’s also telling that Mia’s mother could pass for her sister and that her little sister herself curses like a sailor (adding some very funny comic moments – a little girl using swear words she doesn’t quite understand is hilarious and actress Rebecca Griffiths steals some scenes).

This is a portrait of a realistically dysfunctional family living in a council estate in London, and it doesn’t pull punches in the way coming-of-age stories sometimes can, nor give into romanticism. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s fair to say that, no, Mia does not become a West-End star of stage and show, no, her mother does not marry Connor and clean-up her ways, and no, Taylor definitely won’t stop swearing. This film is far beyond any hackneyed and trite euphoric ending, and it’s brilliant for it. It’s not that I’m a miserly old bastard who doesn’t want to tear-up when Tom Hanks flies into the estate via helicopter and whisks Mia off to a new life, it’s just that I like things grounded in reality, and Fish Tank is real and all the more affecting for the straight depiction and rendering of the characters. The ending itself, or at least the build-up to it, is incredibly intense. Andrea Arnold went down a daring route with Mia’s actions in the last act of the film and it is spellbinding and scary to watch, but I think, given how it might have ended had a different writer been on-board, it’s perfect.

Check this out if you get the chance, at 120 minutes, it’s a slice of urban tragedy, well written, excellently acted and with perfect direction. Here’s a quote from young Taylor that she says to Connor, but I’ll use it to apply to all involved in bringing this to the screen: “I like you, I’ll kill you last.”

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