A fantastic symphony of characters making regrettable decisions, "Fish Tank" is a depiction of innocence lost, set against a common backdrop of working-class England, with its claustrophobic habitats and perpetual ambiance of hostility. It's a dynamite film, but I was caught watching with eyes-through-fingers a few times, fearful moments of exquisite tension would devolve into a Catherine Breillat-style shock-value spectacle. Thankfully, director Andrea Arnold has better taste, making her feature not a depressive cage, but a maze of behavioral patterns and damage with some form of light at the end of the tunnel.
15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a lost girl struggling with her negligent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), a filthy home, and the images of hip-hop dancing salvation force fed to her through television. Into the family comes Connor (Michael Fassbender, "Inglourious Basterds"), Joanne's latest fling, who takes a shine to Mia and her prickly disposition. Mia, curious about the attention, becomes infatuated with Connor, unsure how to process her newfound sexual response. Though she stumbles upon a friend in age-appropriate Billy (Harry Treadaway), Mia finds Connor's advances more persuasive, putting her in yet another precarious situation while the rest of her life continues to slip out of control.
Though not quite as feral as the 1999 Palme d'Or winner "Rosetta," "Fish Tank" submits a similar sort of impetuous, teenaged, hand-held screen energy, tracking an unpredictable character as she maneuvers through a series of obstacles while trapped in an impossible economic situation. The setting here is England and its lost generation: a track-suited teen nation raised on lousy American hip-hop, unobtainable displays of extravagance found on television, and brimming with chipped-tooth discontent brought on by easily attained alcohol and an absence of parental interest. We've been here before, but the general hold of sympathetic study in Arnold's direction is riveting, taking the viewer into areas of conduct that are uncomfortable to watch, yet vital to the overall understanding of Mia and her well-oiled rage.
"Fish Tank" is a generally silent, semi-verite journey that follows Mia as she stomps around her community, put off by her peers as she pieces together a dream for a better life. Her golden ticket out of town is dance, which she practices inside an abandoned apartment, worried to reveal her passion for fear it will be taken away. She picks fights with the locals girls, and grows fixated on a horse chained in Billy's yard -- a symbolic figure of forecast that Mia takes to heart. She's a complicated girl with wrath as her one and only exterior speed, yet Connor brings something out of her that's rarely allowed the light of day: vulnerability. However, he's a predator of unknown origins, with Arnold plucking a devastating string of tension pulled taught between them; it's an unnerving sexual energy the picture plays superbly without feeling the need to be lascivious about it. It's a fresh sensation of curiosity and urge handed to a bewildered Mia, whose only role model appears to be Joanne, a boozy, easy blonde who looks roughly 10 years older than her daughter.
The clarity on the "Fish Tank" BD is startling, with the AVC encoded image (1.33:1 aspect ratio) presentation delivering an exceptionally evocative viewing event. Retaining the film's low-budget grit, the disc provides natural colors, punching through on costumes and street life -- greens and yellows boost the film's winning use of daylight, with hues crisply separated and deployed. Detail is outstanding, with the film's locations viewed in full (blessed with incredible earthy textures and urban chaos), while faces retain their performance subtlety and emotional purity (not to mention adolescent growing pains). Shadow detail is strong throughout, pulling require visual information out of low-light encounters, while successfully surveying hair and costume details.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix doesn't challenge the average home theater with a wide range of auditory business, instead providing the dramatic essentials with precise movements and crisp separation. Soundtrack cuts make a dimensional impression, with throbbing bass and beats encouraging a low-end response, while the music feels out the surround channels comfortably. Dialogue exchanges are precise and rich, keeping frontal and clear. Atmospherics are encouraging, with the film's harsh weather elements feeding into some directional activity, while interiors retain a pleasing echo. Much like the visual experience, the sonic side of "Fish Tank" brings about maximum mood and purpose.
English subtitles are offered.
"Kierston Wareing" (14:19) sits down with the actress to discuss her role in the film, along with an extensive chat about character motivation (an illuminating topic). With her history working for Ken Loach, Wareing is able to communicate her thespian approach and experience collaborating with Arnold.
"Michael Fassbender" (26:22) is an audio interview between curator David Schwartz and the actor, recorded in 2010. Again discussing approach and on-set experience, the chat heads into a Q&A experience where Fassbender handles himself well with some pretty random queries.
"Audition Footage" (9:42) collects dance footage from the aspiring Mias, who work their convincing electric boogaloo for the camera.
"Milk" (1988, 10:30), "Dog" (2001, 10:16), and "Wasp" (2003, 25:46) are three short films from Andrea Arnold containing images and themes of family, adolescence, and poverty that would eventually funnel into "Fish Tank." "Wasp" even nabbed her an Academy Award.
"Stills Gallery" collects 53 pictures taken during the film shoot.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
"Fish Tank" visits bleak psychological spaces, and while it's a good 15 minutes too long, the lasting effect of the film is felt vividly through Jarvis's raw performance. She's a caustically metered, wide-eyed observer that acts as the ideal glue for Arnold as the director assembles the chilling pieces of this shattered household together. It's a pungent display of teenage life, but "Fish Tank" achieves sublime emotional candor, gripping tightly with an electric cinematic hold. It makes the unthinkable captivating.