“Fish Tank” is not a film for the faint of heart. This dark portrait of a teenage girl growing up in working-class England is harrowing in its brutal honesty. Writer-director Andrea Arnold offers a teen drama that Hollywood doesn’t usually present. Instead of trendy lingo, a hipster soundtrack and a love interest to bring salvation, Arnold presents a harsh dose of real life.
Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis), the protagonist, is the definition of teen angst. She is a 15-year-old mess of a girl who lives with her ever-partying mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and foul-mouthed younger sister Tyler in a public-housing estate in Essex. Mia is perpetually angry, lonely and insecure.
When we meet Mia, she has just been expelled from school and dumped by her best friend. Her life is an exhausting cycle of humiliation and isolation. Whenever she makes an effort socially, other people do not hesitate to knock her down. On the rare occasion that someone offers Mia a shred of kindness, she lashes out against them and closes herself off in order to preempt the worst.
She sees her life as a prison, a fish tank. She lives in a bleak world in which people tell her what to do and then expect her to fail. In turn, Mia is drawn to the things around her that are also in captivity, such as a sickly-looking horse. Her effort to free the horse from its chains is illustrative of her own imprisonment, and it foreshadows her eventual escape from the life she hates.
Connor (Michael Fassbender), a charming Irishman, moves in with the Williams clan as Joanne’s new boyfriend. To Mia, he is at once a friend, a father figure and an object of sexual attraction. Connor is the only person in Mia’s life — and perhaps the first ever — to offer her any positive support.
While Connor ultimately takes advantage of Mia’s vulnerability, their relationship does lead Mia to gradually open up to people. She smiles more and begins a relationship with a boy in her neighborhood. Mia’s slow transformation through her relations with Connor can be seen as beneficial for her; though her dreams are eventually crushed once again, she seeks solace in people rather than self-imposed isolation for the first time in her life.
Jarvis, a newcomer whose own background is similar to that of Mia, is remarkable at expressing Mia’s internal struggles along with her external behavior, such as her guarded smile and her hesitation before lashing out at others. The viewer is well aware that Mia acts out of self-protection, not malice. It would have been easy for Arnold to create a character that is simply mean, but instead, Mia is a fully fleshed-out, yet pitiful, person.
The camera is rarely focused on anyone but Mia, creating a wholly singular perspective of the action in the film. This relentless focus particularly colors Mia’s relationship with Connor as excessive kindness leads to casual flirtation. The inappropriate, yet desired, nature of these events makes the viewer question Mia as a reliable narrator. Through Connor’s eyes, the same scene might be motivated by fatherly impulses rather than sexual ones, but Mia’s sexual attraction to and desire for Connor clouds the viewer’s judgment.
The film eventually answers the question of Connor’s interest in Mia, and it does not come out favorably for him. From that point on, Arnold presents the theme that no one is entirely good or evil. The viewer learns that Connor, temporarily a bright light in Mia’s dark world, has a mean streak a mile long. Mia’s mother, on the other hand, has the capacity to show forgiveness to and affection for her daughters, whereas in the beginning viewers believed her to be unfeeling and indifferent. Mia has the ability to be truly cruel in intention as well as outcome, making even the protagonist a complex, often misunderstood creation.
At the close of “Fish Tank,” Mia’s life is still not perfect. Mia has changed, but the film depicts only one chapter in her life. Arnold’s script and characters illustrate the real world behind the troubled teen and encourages the viewer to look at his or her own struggles.