When the auteur theory, arguing that a film is primarily a reflection of its director and their creative vision, was originally put forward, another issue was inadvertently raised: content versus execution. Can a director overcome a trite premise and create a masterpiece or, more precisely, can a filmmaker take a seemingly broad and cliche story and create something that reaches the level of masterful social commentary? If we are to use Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film “Fish Tank” as a case study, then the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”
In “Fish Tank,” a young, impoverished girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis) dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Through her hopeless surroundings, an older man, Connor (Michael Fassbender), arrives with the hope that she so desperately needs, encouraging her to follow her dream. In the wrong hands, “Fish Tank” could have easily been a paint-by-numbers story of inspiration that would fit perfectly into the 2 a.m. slot on the Lifetime Movie Network. In the hands of Andrea Arnold, though, the film becomes a harsh, introspective look at what dreams really are and how our environment shapes them. So many films irresponsibly portray the meteoric rise from poverty to success as a foregone conclusion that it has been engrained as truth in our current cultural landscape. The social maxim is that if you work hard enough, you can overcome any obstacle to obtain the dream life that you believe you deserve.
Refreshingly, “Fish Tank” and Andrea Arnold seem intent on truly deconstructing this belief. While Mia is technically the protagonist of the film, she appears anything but for the first 10 minutes. Scowling and mocking everyone in her path, even taking time to break a nose or two, Mia seems intent on being the antagonist of her own story. The reason for this self-destructive behavior, which seems like an active attempt to be disliked, is as basic as this: it is self-defense. Her environment, which includes her own disinterested mother, is harsh. So harsh that it will attack the moment a person reveals anything that resembles weakness. This is the true conflict of the movie — not whether Mia can succeed as a dancer, but whether she will have the bravery to admit that she has a dream. In her world, hopes and dreams are the biggest weaknesses of all.
Arnold decided to shoot the entirety of the movie with a handheld camera that almost always follows behind Mia. It’s almost as if the camera, and ostensibly the audience, is an active participant in the movie. Mia’s world is not simply vividly depicted for the plot’s sake. The audience are forced to wallow in this hopeless landscape to the point that it almost feels as if they are trapped as well. Adding to this sense of imprisonment is the fact that “Fish Tank” was filmed in the boxy 4:3 ratio. There are no wide, spacious compositions in the film. The audience is stuck in this small, tough space with Mia and her surroundings, never allowed to watch passively from the periphery.
Another notable component of “Fish Tank” is the brilliant acting. At this point, filmgoers know who Michael Fassbender is. His career has ascended to such a high level that he has been able to play Magneto in “X-Men: First Class” and an android in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” Before Fassbender’s star was blessed by the Hollywood gods, however, he made a career out of intimate, character-based dramas. “Fish Tank” is no exception. Fassbender manages to walk that fine line between the audience loving and hating his character with a skill that few working actors are capable of. The truly impressive acting work in “Fish Tank,” though, comes from Fassbender’s co-star, Katie Jarvis. Her portrayal of the emotionally damaged and volatile Mia is not really so much of a performance as an explosion of raw emotion. “Fish Tank” leans heavily on Jarvis and she seems to have no problem supporting that weight.
“Fish Tank” is not a movie that will reinforce any fuzzy feelings about the rags-to-riches mold. Some people may even find it depressingly pessimistic. But in a life where pessimism is a small hop from realism, “Fish Tank” manages to analyze and capture how close that small hop can come to either affirm or destroy a life. And for a movie that is, on the surface, about a girl who wants to be a dancer, the fact that that reality is even examined makes “Fish Tank” a unique film that should be seen.
“Fish Tank” is currently available to stream via Netflix.