"Are you my friend now?" Connor (Michael Fassbinder) asks Mia (Katie Jarvis) about mid-way through Fish Tank. It's a fair question, given how turbulent her emotions are, particularly where he's been concerned. One moment she likes him, the next she's lashing out at him; she's 15, it's a tough time. Making it tougher is her less than ideal home life. Her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), is more concerned with partying than with Mia or her younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths), has been expelled from school and may be taken away to a progressive school; her only solace seems to be in drinking and in dancing, which she does in one of her tenement's abandoned units. And then, of course, there's Connor, too.
Connor shows up in her life as her mother's most recent boyfriend. He's nice to her and takes an interest in her desire to become a professional dancer. One day he breaks up the family's routine - which seems to consist entirely of watching television and fighting - by taking them on a trip to a river, where he and Mia wade in and catch a fish. Mia cuts her foot and he carries her back to the car and in the moment that she lays her head on his shoulder, the tension that has been simmering between them seems to blossom into more.
Mia is constantly shifting back and forth between being nice to Connor and verbally attacking him. She's attracted to him, of course, but she's also jealous of his relationship with her mother and confused by the situation in general. Sometimes it becomes so intense that she erupts with anger for seemingly no reason and, given what we know about her, it's an understandable reaction. She's spent 15 years believing that no one really cares about her and then she finds someone who does, but the situation is all wrong. She doesn’t possess the language to properly express what she’s experiencing, so instead she just acts out blindly, never stopping to think about the potential consequences.
Connor's motivations are never entirely clear. He's a shadowy figure who appears to be one thing but turns out to be another. There's something he's desperate to keep hidden and when Mia discovers it, she reacts by doing something horrible. The sequence of scenes which follow her discovery grows increasingly frightening because Mia is such an impulsive character, an absolute slave to the intensity of her emotions. We don’t know what she’s going to do, how far it will go or whether she’ll be able to pull back and keep it from escalating into a genuine, irreversible tragedy. Writer/director Andrea Arnold does an amazing job building the tension throughout this sequence; it is almost unbearable to watch as it progresses towards its conclusion because there is so much at stake and the film has already demonstrated its willingness to go to the darkest possible place.
At the centre of all of this is Katie Jarvis in what is amazingly her first film performance. She is completely natural and at ease in the role and the fact that she never takes a false step is all the more incredible given not just the heightened level of emotions, but also how many emotions compete for dominance in any given scene. The character is out of control, free-falling through feelings that she doesn’t fully understand, but Jarvis is in control of the performance from beginning to end.
Fish Tank is not the type of film that will leave you feeling uplifted. It is about a girl living in poverty who dreams of being a dancer, but it is about as far from a rags to riches story as you can get. It is grim and gritty from beginning to end, its ambiguous finale suggesting merely a perpetuation of the cycle of poverty and neglect rather than an escape that will open up new possibilities. At the same time, however, it also feels somewhat hopeful: Mia and her mother have shared a moment of true happiness and Mia is now a bit wiser and is literally leaving behind a place that has caused her much pain. It’s an ending that is open to interpretation, that leaves you wondering where Mia will end up and if she will finally find some kind of stability and happiness. It is sad and it is perfect.