Chav a nice day

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Roll up, roll up, for Ms Arnold’s whistlestop tour of Broken Britain. Next stop, Essex (I do hope Wooster and Wooster are taking notes).

This is the follow-up to the director’s first feature. Red Road was a thoughtful and absorbing mystery film; set in Glasgow, it saw a nice respectable woman get drawn into the murky goings-on around a horrid council estate of Dante’s Inferno proportions. Having thus tested the water, this time we are plunged straight into Chav Central. Our heroine is a fearsome girl from an estate (sample line: “Your eyes are looking pretty rough, did your dad miss your mouth?”). She senses that there’s more to life than Special Brew, flick-knives and chart hip-hop, but is unable to access it.

There’s something slightly confrontational about the fact that Arnold sets her films amongst the underclass. They are rigorously artsy, low-budget indie films with scant circulation that will be seen primarily by the middle classes. Not that the films are overtly didactic or preachy, but Mia’s inner life is shown to us and on the whole the portrayal is sympathetic. The System despairs of her and wants to put her in a referral unit; her lack of opportunity is writ large throughout. We could argue about the causes of delinquency ’til the cows come home but I’m more interested in whether or not it’s a well-crafted film.

The film is very well-photographed and has the odd knack of making the dreary look almost exotic. It’s a world of wizened weeds poking through concrete wasteland, where 15-year-old Mia (débutante Katie Jarvis) has to walk along the side of dual carriageways to get anywhere. The lighting is beautiful; see the first appearance of Conor (Michael Fassbender), when he enters the kitchen and the sunlight falls just so on his sculpted torso. It’s like a renaissance fresco.

The look is augmented by a sort of Thomas Hardy pathetic fallacy going on in the use of nature. Arnold slots in some understated, quiet shots, the effect of which is largely subliminal but creates mood. Before an important sex scene we get evocative shots of dark clouds looming over the estate, the sound of thunder. As Mia is finally meeting a boy her own age (with whom she goes off at the end), their coming together is preceded by a huge swarm of migrating swallows.

One guesses that the fish tank is the estate; people packed into close quarters, quarrelling and coming to blows. It’s also puberty; the frustration and anxiety of being half-formed, stuck between childhood and adulthood. Mia is at the centre of the lens in almost all her onscreen time and she has a vibe of immense energy, boxed in and kept on a leash. When we watch her sitting in the back on a long car journey she can’t sit still, sticking her head and arms out the window. Her passion is dance; we see her transfixed by youtube clips in an Internet café and she practices in an empty flat at the top of her block.

There’s a bit of fish imagery going on; one of the scenes that brings Mia and Conor closer together sees Mia help him to catch a fish with his bare hands. We are shown the fish lying on the ground, gasping and terrified, before Conor impales it on a branch. Mia’s mum doesn’t cook the fish; the next time we see it it’s on the kitchen floor, being eaten by Tennents the dog. At crucial moments the film is full of amplified heavy breathing (mostly Mia’s or Conor’s) that recalls the fish.

Indeed the film opens with Mia’s heavy breathing as she leaves a voicemail for a friend. As she walks home we see her call her friend’s dad a cunt and headbutt a girl, who is left with a bloody nose. We see also 10-year-old girls sunbathing, topless teenage boys walking pitbulls. At home she throws many a teen tantrum. It’s pure Vicky Pollard but the camera persists; it’s intimate with Mia, following her upstairs and into her bedroom, with a close-up of her huddling up in bed. We’re stuck with this girl and we’re going to get to know her whether we like it or not.

Mia’s mother cannot control her and has altogether given up parenting as a bad job. She prefers to play reggae at wall-shaking volume and walk around the flat in her knickers and thin tops with no bra; she’s like a child herself. The girls are banished upstairs when she throws parties, at which drunken adults dance and grope around in each others’ pants (Mia sneaks downstairs to pinch a bottle of vodka). Mia’s little sister is a fantastically foul-mouthed greek chorus; she and her pre-pubescent friends drink beer and smoke fags as they watch pop videos in her bedroom. She is quick to shout “AIDS! AIDS!” when Mia cuts her foot in the fish-catching scene.

The first evidence that there is more to Mia than stereotype comes with her repeated visits to an emaciated horse, kept by some caravan-dwellers on the side of the motorway. The horse is an idée fixe for her; even when two of the boys molest her and snatch her bag, she’s still compelled to go back to the horse, hoping to break its chains with a hammer. One of the boys is somewhat nicer and they strike up a bit of a friendship.

One day Mia’s mum brings home Conor, the charismatic Irishman, and from that sun-kissed first shot there is immense sexual chemistry between Mia and he. “You dance like a black”, he tells her; we see Mia ogling his body as he makes tea and disappears up the stairs. She looks through his wallet, finds £35 and only takes the fiver. It must be love.

Her scenes with Conor sizzle. It’s obviously very dodgy -an under-age girl with her mum’s boyfriend- but the forbidden fruit aspect is probably what makes the sexual tension so effervescent. When she passes out on her mum’s bed, he carries her to her own room, lays her down and takes off her shoes. We hear him breathing heavily and we can tell that Mia is now awake, eyes closed but eyelashes fluttering. He takes off her trousers, then sanity takes over and he tucks her up before leaving.

The next morning, her mum scolds her for coming downstairs in her knickers; it’s plain why mum’s suddenly taken an interest. Soon Conor has moved into their house- shades of James Mason in Lolita. Mia gets up in the middle of the night to listen to, and then watch, Conor having sex with her mum. She slams her door loudly when the show is over- twice. Conor promises Mia a camcorder to film herself dancing; she walks in on him getting dressed to ask for it, and an intimate scene ends with Conor spanking her.

By the night Mia’s drunken mum goes straight to bed post-pub, it has an air of grim inevitability. His eyes are twinkling, he compliments her hair, and coaxes her into dancing for him. When they sit together she rests her head on his shoulder, he plays with her hair and one thing leads to another. She’s been seeing a lot of the boy from the caravan (to get a reaction from Conor as far as we can tell), and it worked. He whispers that it’ll be much better with him as they screw on the sofa.

The trouble with all of is that Mia really needed a father figure. Conor could have done that -he bandaged up her foot when she got injured, it’s him she goes to confide in when she applies for a dancing audition- but he’s been weak and irresponsible. And the next morning, he does a runner. Mia walks all the way to the address she found in his wallet. He promptly drives her to the station but he’s all mixed messages, kissing her again but telling her “Mia, you’re 15 years old”.

At this point, the film takes a sharp turn into Haneke territory. Red Road had us guessing what its central mystery was all the way through, and it was a pretty meaty one. Fish Tank‘s surprise is less so. Mia breaks into Conor’s house and finds that he has a wife and kid, from whom her mum was a little vacation.

She abducts the little girl, drags her through fields of crops to the coast, and throws her into the sea when the girl won’t stop booting her in the shins. The handheld camera is jerking wildly all over the place and your stomach follows suit. Once we’ve had a thorough scare Arnold pulls back, Mia gets the girl out of the water and takes her home. These scenes are the climax of the film and I was surprised that it didn’t end very shortly afterwards. Having been shown, however, that she cannot get out of her poverty trap through love, there’s another dream of Mia’s that needs shattering.

The dance audition is a biting satire of suburbia and there’s something of Phoenix Nights about the middle-aged couple doing the auditioning. Mia turns up in a tracksuit and trainers, ready to show off her hip-hop moves, and finds that all the other girls are pneumatic blondes performing overtly sexual wiggles. “Don’t you have a pair of hot-pants with you, love?” ask the couple. Mia climbs down from the podium and walks out.

With no better options, Mia accepts caravan boy’s invitation to go to Cardiff. As a coda, she has a grudging reconciliation with her mother and sister as the three share a synchronised dance to ‘Life’s A Bitch & Then You Die’ by Nas, with Tennents sitting in his basket and looking perplexed. Mia’s goodbye to her sister is well-played and quite affecting (“Hate you”. “Hate you too”). The film ends with the dismal cliché of a heart-shaped balloon floating into the air and away from the estate.

Fish Tank is a feisty film about youth, containment, the getting over of disappointments. It’s feisty and funny, with watchable characters and strong dialogue. It should probably have ended earlier than it did but its direction is assured. Less idiosyncratic than Red Road, more realism than classicism, it still makes a strong impression. Would make a great double bill with Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love.


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September 2009
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