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Taking the Jailbait

Fish Tank (2009)

Festival de Cannes

The inconvenient truth about films which prize naturalism above all else is that they can easily meet theatricality coming back the other way. There are elements in Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" that set it above any previous British kitchen-sink drama, most especially a depiction of young female sexuality handled more deftly than a male director would manage, whatever his documentary credentials. But set against that, the film clanks to a halt at regular intervals to indulge stereotypes so familiar that you wonder what exactly Ms. Arnold was after.

The set-up is a hormonal time bomb. Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) – at odds with all authority figures up to and including her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) – dreams of being a dancer as a means of escape from her dead-end life. Then Joanne's latest boyfriend arrives: the smoothly charismatic Connor (Michael Fassbender); and once Mia gets a look at him with his shirt off, there's trouble brewing. Connor gives Mia the attention and encouragement she conspicuously fails to get from anyone else; and although his motives remain ambiguous, a complicated and disconcerting bond grows. One which is plainly doomed.

This is humane and tragic-comic and powerful enough to make you uneasy, and Ms. Jarvis is exactly the kind of raw unmannered performer any naturalistic director would cherish. Speaking after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening, Ms. Jarvis repeated the story of her casting, having been discovered in the middle of a public shouting match with her boyfriend - there can be no doubt who won. Joanne, a toxic bundle of horrid whose scorn could fog an x-ray, looks like a thankless role for Ms. Wareing; but the actress operates with a scalpel and finds shades of gray everywhere. Ms. Wareing spoke briefly too, and is the least toxic thing imaginable.

But each time "Fish Tank" reaches the highs and lows of its rhythm, it promptly stutters. Scenes are overemphasized with the zeal of a director who knows not when to stop, one tied so tightly to depiction that she's missed the value of suggestion. So at Mia's final moment of breakdown, it is not enough for Ms. Jarvis to convey agony and terror through face and voice – which she does very well – but she must also lose bladder control too, with unfortunate consequences for her dignity and the soft furnishings. Mia's later pursuit of Connor's own daughter in an unfocused meltdown of rage and guilt is turned into an extended chase in which the little girl is not just pursued, but terrorized to a degree that deflates the moment completely, while you fret about the actor and wonder where her parents are.

It's not all this way. A sequence where Connor catches a fish with his bare hands for Mia is a pastoral dream, the perfect way to cement the thread between man and girl. Later he undresses her while she pretends to be asleep, a human moment of uncertain desire. There seems an ocean of difference between that lightness of touch and Mia's efforts to free a sad white horse from its chains, which couldn't be a more blatant metaphor if the animal had been a unicorn. Or the shot of a silver balloon wafting over the landscape, free at last. It is shaped like a heart, presumably in case anyone watching thought it was Mia's leg that had been broken.


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