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Fish Tank is a real punch in the gut, in a good way. I went into the film looking for answers to two questions. First, what did director Andrea Arnold accomplish by casting Katie Jarvis, a teenager with no prior acting experience, as her lead? Second, what’s the significance of the title? I think I found answers to both, but like all great works of art, Fish Tank leaves room for interpretation. It’s not an easy sit, but it’s riveting in the moment and tough to shake afterward.
Jarvis plays Mia, a pugnacious teenager living on a London council estate with dreams of becoming a breakdancer. Her mother (Kierston Wareing) is a garbage human who’s more interested in partying than parenting, and her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) is already starting look up to Mia more than their mother. One day Mia sees a horse chained up in a vacant lot and becomes obsessed with the idea of setting it free, even after she gets assaulted and robbed by two of the teenage boys living in campers on the lot. She becomes friends with the brother of one of the boys (Harry Treadaway) after he saves her by “accidentally” letting their Rottweiler free and giving her a chance to escape. At the same time, Mia develops an uneasy friendship with her mom’s new boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender), who takes an interest in Mia that might be paternal or might be something more.
What makes Fish Tank so devastating is how close Mia’s relationship with Conor comes to being good and wholesome. She should have someone to carry her to her room and tuck her in when she falls asleep, and bandage her foot when she cuts it. She should have someone to flirt with and fall in love with for the first time. The fact that she doesn’t want either of these things from Conor makes it all the more painful to watch him break down her defenses. It’s impossible not to feel her excitement and the encouragement she gets from Conor, even though we know their relationship is totally inappropriate. Even knowing about men and the way they sometimes prey on vulnerable women, we’re still riveted by Conor and the promise he represents of something better than the dreary life Mia has endured with a sort of stoic belligerence for fifteen years. We’re not fooled by Conor’s charm, but our knowledge implicates us in what happens to Mia, rather than letting us off the hook.
It’s interesting to me that Arnold chose to combine a naturalistic film style using handheld cameras and ambient lighting and sound with a very obvious symbol, in the form of the horse Mia wants to rescue. The horse happens to be white (or very pale gray), representing purity, and Mia is obsessed with trying to rescue it from its urban prison. It’s not a stretch to speculate that Mia herself is aware of the horse’s significance as a physical manifestation of her purity of spirit (if not of body). In any case, she’s devastated when the horse dies, which she finds out the day after she and Conor consummate their relationship. I don’t often see such clear-cut symbolism in modern films, and I like the way it anchors the film in cinematic history and gives it a sense of timelessness. In particular it reminded me of Au Hasard Balthazar, which uses a long-suffering donkey as a symbol for patience in the face of cruelty. (Not coincidentally, that donkey is also beloved by a young woman whose affection still isn’t enough to protect it from the cruelty of man.)
In one of Fish Tank’s final scenes, Mia tries to say goodbye to her mother, who’s busy swanning around the living room, listening to Mia’s CD of “Life’s a Bitch” by Nas. Her mother tells her to fuck off, so instead of a normal farewell, Mia goes up to her mother and demonstrates a basic grapevine. Her mother mirrors the dance move and then Mia’s sister comes up behind her and follows along as well. Mia’s mother has been uniformly terrible throughout the film, but watching her mirroring her daughters, letting them teach her instead of the other way around, it’s clear that she’s the one for whom life’s a bitch and will probably keep on being a bitch. It’s the only real moment of peace between Mia and her mother, made possible because Mia is getting out and doesn’t need her to be a real mother anymore.
So, back to my original questions, in reverse order. What’s the significance of the film’s title? A fish tank suggests both confinement and lack of privacy, two things that characterize Mia’s life in the apartment she shares with her mom and sister. She can’t escape being observed, which leads to her entanglement with Conor. And what does Arnold accomplish by casting a non-professional actor as her lead? Jarvis was asked to audition after one of the film’s casting assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend in a train station. She didn’t believe the offer at first and refused to give the casting assistant her phone number, all of which suggests that there’s a great deal of overlap between Mia the character and Jarvis the actor. Mia may have lost her innocence—and the film does not suggest this is a good thing or try to turn it into something positive—but her fire is undimmed, partly because it’s Jarvis’s own feisty spirit shining through. Mia clings to life like a barnacle, and this is ultimately what saves her.