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Fish Tank

Troubled Waters

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Andrea Arnoldís second, feature-length film (after 2006ís Red Road), Fish Tank, centers on Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis), a troubled 15 year old who lives outside London with her alcoholic single mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and her preteen sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths).

Fish Tank opens on Mia, sweating and breathing hard after practicing hip-hop moves inside an abandoned flat. Lonely, alienated, disaffected, and friendless, she mocks a group a group of girls practicing their dance moves and head butts another one before exchanging profanity-laced insults with the other girls and fleeing. Arnold follows Mia from behind, using a jittery handheld camera to keep up as she walks through the bleak, barren housing blocks to her cramped, inhospitable home.

Mia is familiar as a problem teenager found in social-realist dramas. She doesnít get along with her mother ó for good reason, given her motherís alcoholism and verbal abuse ó her days are filled with a combination of monotony and danger from the local girls and boys. But all that misbehavior hides real longing for a nurturing, reciprocal relationship. Miaís attempt to save an aging horse goes awry, leaving her even more desperate and unhappy than before.

Fish Tank provides a catalyst in the form of Conner (Michael Fassbender), her momís latest boyfriend. Conner gradually breaks down Miaís blustery defenses, encouraging her to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer, even providing her with a video camera to tape herself for an audition. He also broadens Miaís horizons by exposing her to unfamiliar music.

Another catalyst appears in the form of the boarding school Mia must attend. Despite her feelings toward her mother and her social situation, she doesnít want to leave home. And as her relationship with Conner teeters into inappropriate behavior, Miaís life begins to spiral out of control, compelling her to make one ill-informed decision after another.

Arnold, who also wrote the screenplay, structures Fish Tank around observation, letting her characters make decisions that donít follow preconceived formula and without the solemn sermonizing that often undermines social-realist dramas. Arnold doesnít judge her characters, instead she gives them believable traits that are positive and negative.

Miaís profanity-laced tirades might come as a shock to moviegoers at first, as do her younger sisterís, but they also feel authentic and true to her working-class background. Her use of profanity acts as a defense mechanism, protecting her from her motherís verbal abuse, making her look and sound tough, and fitting in with her neighbors.

For her cast, Arnold didnít have to think twice about casting Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Hunger), but she took an obvious risk with Jarvis, a newcomer to film. As Mia, Jarvis gives a rough-edged, but no less authentic, performance than Fassbendersí role as the late IRA activist Bobby Sands in Hunger. Probably due to Arnoldís guidance, Jarvis never veers into histrionics, instead relying on a combination of facial expressions and awkward, closed-off body language to convey Miaís conflicted, often confused state of mind.

Arnold ultimately leaves Mia with the possibility, if not the actuality, of a slightly better future, but only after a harrowing, disturbing experience borne out of desperation. That the last shot of Mia rings true is a testament to Arnoldís skillful screenplay and direction. Apparently, the 62nd Cannes Film Festivalís award committee agreed. It gave Fish Tank the Jury Prize last May.