“Fish Tank” director Andrea Arnold found the star of her movie at a subway station, arguing with her boyfriend. It’s hard to imagine that conversation, but kind of fun to try.
“Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m a film director, and I’d like you to be in my next film.”
“You want me to be in your movie?”
“Is it a porno?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Well, what’s it about?”
“It’s about…you. Or a girl like you.”
“It’s about me.”
“Lady, you don’t even know me.”
“Ok, true, but…”
It takes a pretty unique person to say yes to that kind of proposal. And a pretty unique director to lay her entire movie at the feet of a stranger with no acting experience. Thankfully for all of us, the risk pays off. “Fish Tank” has plenty of problems as a film, but none of them have anything to do with Katie Jarvis’ performance. She is razor sharp, angry, energetic, and captivating. As might be expected, she doesn’t act so much as move with purpose across the screen.
Seems like she’s always moving; always looking for a way to escape her present place for somewhere better, though nowhere better is offered most of the time. Jarvis lives in public housing, she’s been kicked out of school; her mother doesn’t appear to work but likes to have parties in her house and shut her daughters upstairs. Jarvis has a 10 year old sister, played by Rebecca Griffiths, whose foul mouth tells us all we need to know about how this family relates to each other. (My favorite line: just after she meets her mom’s new boyfriends, she tells him, “I like you. I’ll kill you last.”)
Jarvis finds an emaciated white horse chained to the ground in a place where no horse ought to be, and tries to free it with a ball-peen hammer. She fails, and so does the metaphor, or at the very least, it feels terribly strained and obvious. She has a passion for hip-hop dance, which she practices alone in an abandoned building, usually while wearing headphones, so no one else can hear the music. She sees an ad calling for dancers, and submits a videotape. She gets a call back and goes to an audition, only to discover they’re auditioning “dancers,” not dancers.
Andrea Arnold fed the script of “Fish Tank” to her characters one scene at a time, meaning even they didn’t know what kind of arc their characters were on. This is risky business, almost as risky as casting non-actors in principle roles. Again, the risk pays off. The cast plays every scene like it’s a critical one, which, really, is how most of us live our lives, isn’t it? You never know which decisions are going to be the ones you regret later, or remember fondly.
Jarvis’ mom gets a new boyfriend, played by Michael Fassbender. He is polite, and patient, and kind; qualities in rare supply around the house. You also get the sense that not many men have been nice to these girls. But is he too nice? There is a fine line between being friendly with your new girlfriend’s 15 year old daughter, and seducing her. Fassbender crosses it, though I don’t believe he does it intentionally; he’s not a pedophile, even if he kind of acts like one.
This sets up the third act, in which everybody freaks out. Fassbender breaks up with the mom, and Jarvis follows him home. Apparently he’s married, with a daughter, who she kidnaps, which sets up a scene along a scary shoreline that feels like it belongs in a different movie; maybe something by the Dardenne brothers. It’s skillfully made, but just entirely different from the rest of “Fish Tank” which feels more akin to a Mike Leigh or Ken Loach film. Like the films from those directors, Arnold’s doesn’t resolve nicely or easily; perhaps like Jarvis’ real life (I’m speculating here, I don’t know anything about her) there aren’t a lot of options or chances at redemption. It’s not like you can expect a fabulous director to appear out of nowhere and make you a big star.