In just under a fortnight this decade will be over and a new one will emerge, generally a time for bigger resolutions. So here’s my request: can all the directors in the world stop shaking around with those cameras if it’s not necessary? (And let’s face it: it hardly ever is.) Ever since Dogma 95 and The Blair Witch Project directors found it an übercool tool to add some reality to their films, but more often than not, the only thing it made audiences do was throw up their dinners. Fish Tank suffers from the same problem: cameras jump around for no obvious reasons (it even made me become nostalgic of Jess Franco‘s zooming effects) and in one scene we see protagonist Mia (the excellently cast Katie Jarvis in her debut role) dance to music when suddenly the camera swings around and the sun hits us straight in the eye. There’s only two words for that: bad directing. (Tight budget or not.)
Don’t get me wrong: this is by no means a criticism of the entire film, just of a couple of scenes. Fish Tank is actually quite a decent movie and it’s those details (or are they?) that – from my point of view – keep it from being a stand-out film. Director Andrea Arnold has both been vague and informative about her film’s title. Sometimes she leaves it to the viewer to judge why the film bears this name, in other interviews she said we look at Mia, her family and surroundings like we look at a fish tank.
Mia isn’t blessed with the most perfect surroundings: she’s been kicked out of the umpteenth school, has a love/hate relationship with her little sister Tyler and her mother is a single woman keen on booze and snogging with nearly strangers. As the film opens, we see Mia watching a group of girls mimicking MTV videos. Mia mocks them and soon the verbal fight ends with Mia headbutting a girl and possibly breaking her nose. Life is tough where Mia lives.
Arnold shows us Mia, her toughness and how that’s nothing more than a mask, but does so without being too overt about it, a fault lots of filmmakers make. If there’s any difference between Mia and the girls from her neighbourhood, it’s that Mia is a lot better at dancing than the other girls, who seem to copy the dance moves from tv without any emotion. As if Romero’s zombies had taken over the seedier places of the city. Mia hopes that her dancing may give her a chance to leave the rotten place, but fear not, DV reader, Billy Elliot it ain’t. Andrea Arnold makes no effort to shield you or Mia from the toughness of life and the main difference is that we’re less naive than her. If we see an advertisement for female dancers in a club, the font looks a bit shambolic and the ad does specify the girls have to be older than 18, we know happiness doesn’t lie around the corner.
Another thing is Connor, the new lover Mia’s mother has. This guy seems different from all the previous creeps and is even genuinely kind to Mia and Tyler. Mia even makes an effort to open up to this guy, at which point you can only start hoping there won’t be a moment when the boundaries between mother’s lover and the fifteen-year-old girl will be broken. Mind you, both Mia and Connor don’t mind a bit of alcohol themselves. Yet, credit given where credit is due, Arnold takes the story down a path I hadn’t expected it. Add to this the film’s surroundings, which is depicted with more detail than necessary (there’s a plotline where Mia takes it up for a decrepid horse) and you end up with a film that has more gravitas than most films in this genre: either they end up being unbearably tough and virtually unwatchable (I never feel the need to watch a Shane Meadows movie) or they’re dosed with so much sugar you watch the film with a sick taste in your mouth (the Billy Elliot variety).
What a shame then that there are a couple of scenes where the movie doesn’t look good. I assume it’s a lack of budget rather than negligence, but anyway, it’s a bit of criticism I have to take along. Especially since it isn’t a debut (Arnold’s first feature length film was 2006’s Red Road and she even won an Oscar for her short movie Wasp, both starring Natalie Press).
P.S. Here’s the trailer, with French subtitles but in the correct aspect ratio (yes, the film was made in 4:3 ratio, an oddity in 2009):