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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Movie Review: Fish Tank

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Katie Jarvis as Mia. Photo courtesy IFC Films.

Andrea Arnold certainly knows how to speed things up. The British writer/director wasted no time in making the leap from critically acclaimed short film (the Oscar-winning Wasp) to freshman feature film (Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning Red Road). Yet, with her sophomore film Fish Tank, Arnold proves she’s definitely not moving too fast.

Both in story and scope, Fish Tank is a slow-burning British feature that was the Grand Jury darling of Cannes, but will inevitably be confined to the dusty art houses that none of us visit enough. Mia, the pugnacious 15-year old heroine (played effortlessly and immaculately by newcomer Katie Jarvis) is the sort of hard-talking, foul-mouthed youth we’ve almost come to expect from this type of UK gritty character expose. But with her, the harsh language and penchant for headbutting are a thin front for a loneliness brought on by crumbling social circumstances and the general awkwardness of youth. Between bouts of alcoholism and general non-existence, Mia’s mother manages to bring home a new boyfriend, who quickly finds eyes for young Mia. As new beau Connor continues to court the mother, his ever-so-slightly flirtatious physicality and temperament with Mia slowly become reciprocal. Now deeply involved, Mia must decide between her roughshod exterior and a more vulnerable inside that underscores just how young she really is. And when things begin to fall apart and Mia chooses to act (in particularly egregious yet believable ways), the audience is left to wonder if she is truly beginning to act like a woman (albeit an unstable one), or if older women in her situation simply come down to that level.

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All of this plays perfectly into the effortless nature that Fish Tank exudes. The camerawork vacillates between shaky follow-the-leader viewpoints and more stoic shots of the surroundings that could house such a story, but never is the context or clarity sacrificed. All scenes - urban, rural, domestic, and dark - are given fitting play on the screen, and the result is a milieu of sunlight and movement and sound that belie the despair that lurks. For young Katie Jarvis, Mia presents an almost insurmountable character task that is vanquished so quickly it should be criminal. There are more than a handful of ‘moments’ in the film that require Jarvis to really get inside the skin of Mia - to let us see it in her eyes, and hear the superb dialogue as it was meant to be read, and she does not disappoint.

One note of caution regarding Fish Tank: it does not give you everything you want right up front, and on a silver platter. At times, the dialects are thick enough to make you work for the lines, and the aforementioned pacing can leave you pushed forward in your seat with your foot tapping, waiting impatiently for the moments the film is built around. But these issues are minimal, and absolutely mitigated by equally opposing wide-eyed moments that will have you in the back of your seat, cringing at the realism of the possibilities to come. Like any good feature, the final 30 minutes are the film’s absolute best, as all of that slow-burning tension begins to unwind. While Fish Tank is at times slow, it is never lacking for bite or quiet bravado. Andrea Arnold has taken the sharp realities of current British middle-class society (and, by extension, its film industry) and issued them soft focus, choosing to dial down the direction and let the quality speak for itself. Fish Tank is the culmination of this, and as a result it glows.

Fish Tank screened at this year's AFI Fest, and will be out for wider release in Los Angeles and New York City on January 29th, as well as through IFC's video on demand platform.

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