Peering Inside Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank



By now somewhat familiar with being discovered, first-time actress, Katie Jarvis—who caught the attention of director Andrea Arnold’s casting agent while arguing with her boyfriend on a train station platform in Essex—is now experiencing the celebrity of being a noted “discovery.” At the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, her performance as the lead role in Arnold’s second feature, Fish Tank, available today on Criterion, attracted considerable praise.

Set in and around an Essex council estate, the film follows Mia (Jarvis), a troubled teenager who restlessly and often angrily teeters on the verge of childlike love and invention and adolescent loneliness and angst. She drinks, fights, yells at and with her younger sister, Tyler, and shares a mutual disgust for her mother, Joanne.

But it’s Mia’s friendship with her mother’s boyfriend, Connor, played by Michael Fassbender, that is the film’s clearest tension. Their budding relationship involves a series of exchanges that are superficially innocent and imply a level of sexual strain and discomfort. In one scene, he teaches her to fish with her bare hands, and in another, he lends her his video camera and encourages her to record an audition tape for a dance competition. In both cases, the interaction is physical: she cuts herself on a rock in the lake and he carries her back to the car; she tests the camera’s zoom, shakily filming his face, his back, and his hands as he folds a pair of pants. Because Fish Tank was shot chronologically, and because Arnold insisted that her actors receive their scripts only the night before each day of shooting, the performance between Jarvis and Fassbender feels especially real. Moments of vulnerability are achingly spot-on—both steadfast and unsteady.

While there is a degree of filmic inevitability, especially for those familiar with Arnold’s work—her three shorts are included in the disc’s special features—the camera does not leave Mia’s side once. Jarvis is in every scene. Fish Tank is committed to her. Restlessness as a theme, as a metaphor for the film’s title, as the very fiber of its protagonist, moves each image forward. In the very first minutes, Mia—who practices hip-hop dancing in an empty flat and who’s learned most of her moves from music videos on TV or from YouTube clips she studies at the local Internet café—insults a group of girls whose dancing she doesn’t find impressive. In an explosive second, she head-butts one of the girls and threatens the rest of them. She stomps away as the camera follows her heavy-breathing profile (a recurring image in the film), and as she notices an old horse chained up in a nearby trailer park. Mia sneaks in and tries to let it free. The disparity in tone—from volatile rage to rare flashes of curiosity and care, like with the old horse, or in the mornings when her hair isn’t slicked back into a ponytail and her eyes aren’t lined, and her body seems boyish underneath her pajamas—this shift builds a character who is impossible to judge. It’s an important distinction, and something that makes Arnold’s films (her first feature, Red Road, and the Academy Award-winning short, Wasp) toll for days in her audiences’ minds.