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Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): ****

One of 2010's most notable releases, and a critic's favorite at Cannes (where it won the 2009 Jury Prize), Fish Tank is a must-see for anyone addicted to what might be called "visceral realism" in cinema. Those words are suggested by the late Argentine novelist Robert Bolano, writing in an utterly different context in The Savage Detectives, but they are usefully reappropriated as a coinage for director Andrea Arnold's aesthetic. You can read Ian Christie's thoughtful essay in the booklet that accompanies the new Criterion Collection DVD, which lays out Arnold's connections with the long tradition of British kitchen-sinkism (from The Lonliness of the Long-Distance Runner through Ken Loach and Mike Leigh).

The film's immediacy and piercing intimacy come to life not as latter-day iterations of a trend, but as compassionately felt observation of social conditions and human imperatives all but imploding inside the heart of its 15-year-old protagonist, Mia (Katie Jarvis). v Mia is, to use the hip-hop vernacular, a "hood rat." Only, this ghetto is an Essex council block, where she shares a cluttered flat with her precocious and gutter-mouthed little sister and her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), a boozy-floozy bottle blonde who seems to view her eldest child as competition. This, even though Mia consciously desexualizes herself in sweaty gym garb and pullover hoodies, while Joanne accentuates her assets. To escape the horror and boredom of the household, where the surplus of estrogen might as well be napalm, Mia turns a vacant apartment into a private dance studio. Blasting hip-hop and aggressively practicing moves she's choreographed, Mia gets lost in her dreams - to get the hell out of town and become a professional dancer.

Jarvis, who was discovered on a subway platform screaming at her boyfriend, is riveting throughout. Arnold's camera hovers around her, tracking the actress through constant motion. An opening sequence sets the pace, as we follow Mia into a confrontation with an impromptu dance troupe of other girls, dressed in a knock-off emulation of come-hither video performers, going through the motions with a mixture of ennui and narcissism, giving Mia the collective stink eye. The scene highlights her alienation, but also her impulsive edge, as Mia head-butts one of the girls and leaves her bleeding.

The film's slow accumulation of details, seeking visual poetry in the mundane, counts for as much as the naturalistic acting. Arnold allows a story to emerge gradually, but not without the introduction of sometimes overly-obvious symbolism. There is, for instance, the tethered horse kept in a barren junkyard by a trailer of gypsy-sorts, which looms all too much as a metaphor. It's the animal chemistry Mia has with her mum's new boyfriend Connor (Hunger's Michael Fassbender) that proves more powerful and dangerous. The charismatic figure, who gives Mia the approval and interest that her mother denies, turns out to not be entirely who he seems to be. That is to say, neither predator nor entirely up-and-up good guy, but an electric presence practically helicoptered into a void. Like everyone else, Connor is working around his circumstances to fulfill his needs. And while what happens seems inevitable, and played to a delicately charged dynamic, the film rolls into a third act that goes off the deep end a bit, risking credibility and sympathy.

If the narrative arc wobbles, Arnold proves near-genius at recovering with moments that are gems, usually accompanied by music (Bobby Womack's take on "California Dreamin'," Nas' "Life's a Bitch") that unify these characters emotionally, expressing feelings that might not otherwise get articulated.

One viewing suggestion: Before watching the film for the first time, check out the extras. Besides segments of audition dance performances by prospective Mias, three of Arnold's short films are included. 2003's Wasp makes a perfect segue into Fish Tank, almost as if the little girls neglected by their wayward mother have grown up into the sullen, self-consciously slutty teens that draw Mia's ire.


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