Judge Patrick Bromley is "The Fish Whisperer."
Live, love and give as good as you get.
I have no idea who came up with that tagline for Andrea Arnold's 2009 film Fish Tank. It's obviously an attempt to market the movie as some uplifting, inspirational movie that celebrates the power of love and family. Fish Tank is not that movie. I guess words like "dark," "raw" and "sometimes disturbing" don't look as good on a poster.
Facts of the Case
15-year old Mia (Katie Jarvis in an incredible debut) is trapped, living in a tiny apartment in a run down building with her single (but mostly absent) mother (Kierston Wareing, Wire in the Blood) and difficult younger sister. Her only escape—besides cigarettes, the occasional swiped bottle of booze and fist fight with the neighbor girls—is hip-hop dancing, which she practices in an abandoned apartment and hopes to someday turn into a living. When Mia's mom begins seeing a new guy named Connor (Michael Fassbender, Centurion), everything in Mia's life starts to change.
Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you—one that seems slight and unassuming as it unfolds, but which gradually builds to deliver some major emotional blows. Very little happens in the film, plot-wise, but the things that do happen are the kinds of things that change lives forever. If that makes the movie sound heavy-handed, it shouldn't; writer/director Arnold wisely tells the story without judgment. She simply observes the life of a teenage girl on a path of self destruction. It's personal and intimate—the endlessly persistent handheld camerawork and tightly cropped photography see to that—but never judgmental.
In many ways, Fish Tank feels like Lee Daniels' Precious, minus that film's propensity for flashy, compensatory style and melodrama. It follows a young girl, kicked around by life and left to fend for herself in a world that's challenging and sometimes downright dangerous; she wants to do something to better her station but lacks the decision making skills, age and experience to do so. Mia doesn't even have the support system that Precious was eventually able to find—even the adults that she turns to are only able to do more damage. That she stands any chance at all in the world is a testament to her own strength and ability to change—a point that the film never hammers home the way Daniels did in Precious. Nothing against that film (maybe a little against that film), but Fish Tank is so much more subtle and gives the audience so much more credit for being able to draw their own conclusions. That it received about 1/100th of the attention of Daniels movie is a real shame. Here's hoping that audiences are able to discover Fish Tank now that it's out on DVD and Blu-ray.
None of the film would have much impact if not for the stunningly lived-in performance by first-timer Katie Jarvis, who is never less than authentic as the hard-edged Mia. It can be tricky to pull off a role like this, which requires Jarvis to be all strut and glower and act years beyond her age until those moments when we realize that she's still just a scared teenage girl. It's in those moments that Jarvis finally feels vulnerable, reminding us just how much of her tough girl act is a put-on and how much of it is a function of her having to fend for herself. Fassbender has an equally tricky role, playing a character who isn't a villain but who is far from being a good guy. It's going to be interesting to watch his star rise in the next year or so; on the heels of Inglourious Basterds, it seems like he's attached to every genre property that requires performance over star power. Fish Tank confirms that he can handle the performance; it's movies like X-Men: First Class and Ridley Scott's Prometheus that I suspect will confirm his star power. I'm looking forward to it.
Unsurprisingly, Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Fish Tank (it's one of those rare titles that makes its debut on the Criterion label, rather than appearing as a special edition years after its release) is a stunner. The fact that the film was shot in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio threw me at first, but before long it became obvious why the choice was made; this is a movie about characters who are trapped—crowded and claustrophobic—and the tightness of the framing only serves to highlight that. The HD transfer is nearly flawless, with no dirt or imperfections and lots of naturalistic detail and brilliant color reproduction. There's nothing flashy about the film, visually speaking, but that doesn't take away from the beauty of Criterion's transfer. The DTS-HD audio track is really only asked to deliver dialogue clearly, which it does in the center channel. The remaining speakers are devoted to ambient effects, which helps add to the realism that the film is hoping to achieve—it puts us in the middle of these characters' world.
Though Criterion does offer up a decent amount of bonus features on the Fish Tank Blu-ray, they're not really of the same quality as the studio's usual output. First of all, there's no commentary track included (this from the studio that practically invented the director's commentary back in the days of laserdisc). Instead, there's a pair of interviews: a video interview with Kierston Wareing, who plays Mia's mom in the film. It's not a bad interview, but the neither the character nor the actress factor into the film all that much—she's not exactly who we want or need to hear from when it comes to Fish Tank. Better is an audio-only interview with star Michael Fassbender, who discusses his character, the production and themes of the movie. Three of director Andrea Arnold's short films are included: "Milk," "Dog" and "Wasp," (which won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film) as is reel of young actresses auditioning for the role of Mia that really puts the power of Katie Jarvis' performance into focus. A collection of production photos and the original theatrical trailer round out the supplementary section of the disc.
Fish Tank is challenging stuff, and isn't always easy. It's right there in the title; there we are, standing outside of the fish tank as passive observers, unable to interfere in the lives of these characters who are trapped in their own little world. They can't escape, even as they see the possibility of another life on the other side of the glass.
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