'Fish' Dives into Sexuality and Gender Politics

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Holly Horner/Courtesy






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Correction Appended

Out of the global economic malaise comes "Fish Tank," director Andrea Arnold's tale of adolescence and alienation in the grimy working-class projects of England's Essex County. Winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May, the film brings freshness to the scarred-society subgenre, even though its parts don't necessarily coalesce into a fulfilling whole. In a remarkable screen debut, British actress Kate Jarvis plays 15-year-old Mia Williams, creating a protagonist that brims with authenticity.

Rebellious and plucky, Mia is the face of generational discontent. In many ways, her life could justifiably be described as a living hell, not unlike a modern version of Antoine Doinel's dilemma in "The 400 Blows." Her distaste for authority has earned her an indefinite reprieve from school, and hardly an hour passes in the household without profanity-laced quarrels with her single mother and younger sister. Prematurely disillusioned, Mia channels her frustrations with life through break-dancing sessions and visits to car junkyards. Arnold's camera follows her for nearly the entirety of the film, entrenching us into her bruised worldview without revealing too much at a time.

A shift in narrative occurs when rugged, handsome Connor (Michael Fassbender) shows up and commences a relationship with Mia's mother. A warehouse employee, he emerges as the sole individual with a steady source of income-and, perhaps not coincidentally, the film's only significant male character, with a warm disposition and a father-figure mentality to boot. As Connor's presence electrifies the Williams household, the tomboyish Mia develops a liking for him. In a finely calibrated sequence near the film's middle, Connor carries a presumably sleeping Mia to her bed, and Arnold imbues the moment with uncomfortable eroticism.

Fassbender's Connor is a far departure from his magisterial turn as Bobby Sands in 2008's "Hunger" in a good way: The Irish actor's balance of beguiling honesty and manipulative charm adds to the film's growing sense of dread. As the plot of "Fish Tank" thickens, it becomes apparent that sexuality and gender politics are at the center of Arnold's cinematic motives. Symbolic subtexts abound: a horse chained down to a rock by its owner, a fish gasping for air seconds before its death. While they add a dimension of sophistication to the film, these metaphoric moments inevitably feel forced in the long run.

As a film about a community mired in social woes, "Fish Tank" is ultimately more summary than commentary; instead of offering explanations, Arnold simply depicts the entire occasion as it unfolds. Even so, its sensitivity to the plight of marginalized individuals feels palpable. It's this distinction that differentiates and ultimately lifts "Fish Tank" over its close British cousin, the overly touted "An Education." Where the latter's glossed-over feminism and superficial morals end is where the hard-hitting realism of "Fish Tank" begins.

Its documentary-like grittiness recalling the cinema of the Dardenne brothers, Arnold's film is neither melodramatic nor completely impassive; scenes of heart-wrenching sadness are complemented by small but effective slices of hope. A sequence near the end affirms that not all is lost. Walking by the living room to bid farewell to her desolate mother, Mia and her little sister join the latter in an impromptu dance, bodies swaying to the defiant nihilism of Nas' "Life's a Bitch." Forced to relinquish all illusions, the dysfunctional family becomes one; their synchronicity is at first surreal, then disarmingly poignant.

Correction: Friday, January 29, 2010
An earlier version of this article included a photo caption that incorrectly identified the person in the photo as actress Katie Jarvis. In fact, she is Kierston Wareing.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]



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