Fish Tank: Life is a Bitch

LIVE, LOVE AND GIVE AS GOOD AS YOU GET.

fishtankIt was probably one of the weirdest days in the life of 17-year-old Katie Jarvis. She had just ended a row with her boyfriend at Tilbury Town railway station when she was approached by a casting agent who had been watching the argument. The agent told Katie that she might be perfect for a starring role in a new film. Katie refused to believe the agent, but did eventually show up for an audition and won the part of Mia, a troubled teen. That story sounds like a movie itself, but one that seems true to the heart of Fish Tank.

Director Andrea Arnold found her Mia in Tilbury and that part of Essex is also the setting of the film. Mia is a 15-year-old who lives in a council house with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne had her kids at a very young age and her life isn’t really going anywhere; she’s full of resentment toward Mia and doesn’t really care what her kids are up to. In Mia’s case, that means she’s free to skip school and hang out in a deserted apartment nearby where she can drink beer and practice her dance moves. Dancing is basically the only thing she’s passionate about, but it’s not something she likes to show other people. One day, Joanne takes a new lover, the charming Connor (Michael Fassbender) who’s actually good around the children. Mia, who’s inherited much of her mother’s bitterness, tries hard to disapprove of Connor, but can’t help liking him… and perhaps more than that.

No use for fanfare and contrivances
One of Mia’s favorite songs is “Life’s a Bitch” featuring Nas, an aggressive rap tune. An obvious symbol of this film’s themes, the music plays an important part. Bobby Womack’s soft version of “California Dreamin'” is Connor’s favorite song and Mia ends up using it for a dance audition that she’s planning to attend; she may look like she has no dreams or aspirations, but her mother’s attempts to denigrate everything she does haven’t managed to break her entirely. The way she comes to view Connor is also marked by her dreams of a better life, but also childishly naive. What develops between them doesn’t come as a surprise, but Arnold stays focused on the credibility and real emotions of her story. Much like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, she has no use for fanfare and contrivances; she believes that greatness can be found in the small details of everyday life. On paper, this tale seems unremarkable, but Arnold tells it in a very engaging way and portrays this working-class community as genuinely as she can. The cast is a huge key to her success. That agent deserves a lot of kudos for spotting something in Jarvis; she’s very natural throughout the film and Arnold skillfully guides her through the most challenging scenes (and there’s quite a few that could have ended up looking merely awkward). Wareing also does a good job as the mother, even though she constantly runs the risk of coming across as a caricature. Fassbender, who had his breakthrough the previous year with Hunger, plays a very different character here, truly a nuanced performance.

Nothing is ever in black or white, no event can be taken out of its problematic context. A lot of what’s going on in this film is depressing, but Arnold actually succeeds in not turning it into a downer, but a moving and funny experience with a touch of sadness. As for the title, I’m guessing that it is meant to remind one of an actual fish tank, a concentrated world with clearly defined borders from where there is no escape. Not everyone in Tilbury is picked up by a casting agent at a railway station, huh?

Fish Tank 2009-Britain. 122 min. Color. Produced by Kees Kasander, Nick Laws. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold. Cast: Katie Jarvis (Mia Williams), Michael Fassbender (Connor O’Reily), Kierston Wareing (Joanne Williams), Harry Treadaway, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash.

BAFTA: Best British Film. Cannes: Jury Prize.

Last word: “Although Katie isn’t Mia, she’s got the vulnerability and also the spirit of her. I didn’t ask her to really be anything other than herself. And that’s often what my main note is to the actors. If I’ve cast close, then I’m not really wanting them to be anything other than themselves. When I saw the assembly, I thought Oh, she’s not Katie, she’s Mia! Because I’ve written her lines and I’ve decided what she’s wearing and I’ve given her a place to live, all these decisions add up to this world being believeable. So it’s a combination of all those decisions that you make. Nothing gets put in front of the camera that you haven’t thought about. I didn’t know if it was going to feel like a performance or not, but I was really pleased and surprised to think, She is the girl that I wrote, because I wasn’t sure.” (Arnold, Filmmaker Magazine)

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