Mia is 15, all elbows and anger, going at her life in a rundown apartment complex in Essex as if it were one long skirmish in British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's exceptionally well-crafted drama, "Fish Tank."
The film features newcomer Katie Jarvis, whom the director first spotted fighting with her boyfriend on a train station platform. The 17-year-old so completely captures the innocence, cynicism and rage of a child of poverty and divorce on the edge of adulthood that it feels as if you are spying on Mia, so achingly real, so tangible does her world seem here.
"Fish Tank" has some of the same strains as "Precious," the dark fable of a pregnant, abused and obese Harlem teenager, which is now on the Oscar circuit, but it doesn't have any of the same operatics. Arnold's style is far more vérité, giving us a precisely rendered look at the experience of growing up in a British housing project, with Mia's issues emerging out of neglect and ignorance rather than incest and violence. The brilliant power of the film comes from the gritty reality Arnold creates.
The director's great talent is in telling stories of the underclass and the kind of desperate desire for love and affection that so often comes packaged with that down-market life. She won an Oscar in 2005 for "Wasp," her short film about a near-broken single mother, then a Cannes Jury Prize in 2006 for her feature "Red Road," which has a difficult relationship at its center; "Fish Tank" repeated that success at the film festival last spring.
The heart of the story is Mia, forced by circumstance to grow up far too fast. Her 15 years have come with virtually no breaks, in that fish tank of poverty where entire lives are played out swimming in circles. Disappointment piles up like the clutter in the place she lives, decay does the decorating. The fridge is always empty and the couch, and everyone on it, is worn to the bone.
Mia looks like a colt, long-limbed and awkward even inside the loose sweats she wears. So her passion for dancing -- a kind of freestyle hip-hop with lots of bump and grind mixed with gangsta poses -- comes as a surprise. Tenderness is rare. We see it with an aging horse, chained in a vacant lot, that she wants to set free -- a metaphor as telling as it is understated. Mostly, though, Mia is head-butting her way through life -- literally and figuratively -- alienated from girls her age, dropped out of school and at war with her mom, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), now fading into her late 30s and hoping for that prince to come along, when she's sober enough to still dream.
It is a highly sexualized world where girls get pregnant early and the cycle of children raising children continues. You see the beginnings in the teenagers hanging around Mia's apartment complex, where bravado is foreplay and everyone is spoiling for sex or a fight. And you see the second act in the boozy parties Joanne throws, where Mia finds herself witness to what lust and liquor and loneliness can do to virtual strangers.
Arnold, who wrote and directed here, again proves remarkably facile at capturing society's ills in dramatic form, particularly the treacherous terrain that fatherless teenage girls face. In "Fish Tank," trouble comes in the form of Joanne's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), all lean muscles and laughter. The problem, or one of them, is that Mia exists in an ecosystem where sex is confused for love all the time.
The relationship between Connor and Mia develops in many ways that you might expect but also in many more that you wouldn't. Arnold adds new tangles to the web as the story plays out and in the process says much about the prospects for young girls like Mia. She also digs into the ways in which broken families can pretend to be whole again -- such as girls tucked in at night and country picnics, things neither Mia nor her younger sister has probably ever experienced, and you see both their hunger for it and the fear of it in Mia's eyes.
Arnold takes more than a few risks with her characters, willing to let us loathe them as well as love them, depending on the moment, unwilling to make it easy for either us or them.Fassbender, whom you might know from his very funny turn as an undercover agent who's done in by a bad drink order in " Inglourious Basterds' " tavern scene, is excellent at walking that tight-wire of dark possibilities.
Though you can feel the heat of her anger, and the pain of her disappointments, it is the shots of Mia alone that linger. In a scene that runs through the film, she has broken into a boarded-up apartment, its windows overlooking the despair below. It's where she dances, headphones dangling, moving slowly to music only she can hear. It says everything about her isolation and her still-flickering sense of hope. It is moments like these that leave you as desperate as that 15-year-old to fan that flame.