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Fish Tank (2010) **1/2

February 24, 2010

Written by: Andrea Arnold

Produced by: Kees Kasander and Nick Laws

Directed by: Andrea Arnold

No Rating (excessive naughty language and “adult themes”)

123 min.

U.S. Release Date: January 15, 2010 (limited)

“Fish Tank” is a documentary-style gritty ghetto drama from sophomore writer-director Andrea Arnold that depicts a bleak view of life inside the confines of tenement housing in Essex, England.  The film follows 15-year old loud-mouthed firecracker Mia (Katie Jarvis) as her life changes the day her mother brings a new boyfriend home.  Andrea Arnold constructs an impressive first two acts that bring the viewer into the trenches with Mia, but does the third act keep things fresh, or leave you floating on the surface?

Mia is an angsty teen with a take-no-prisoners attitude that lives in a tenement apartment with her younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and neglectful perpetually drunken mother (Charlotte Collins).  The camera follows her around as she lives out her daily life.  She gets in fights with other neighborhood girls, avoids interactions with her mother, and she stows away to practice dancing as a release.  One day, Mia wakes up to meet her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender).  The second act shifts focus to scenes where Mia, her mother, and Connor interact with each other to create some unbelievably awkward scenes… in a good way.  Director Arnold shows great talent in scene construction as she creates this awkwardness and tension with very simple technique and no help from a musical score.

As I watch films, I try my hardest not to prognosticate the rest of the film, so the start of the third act brought on quite a shock for me.  However the rest of the third act destroys the great natural feel that the first hour and twenty minutes establishes.  The film goes from gritty and realistic to cliché and disappointing.  The final shot in the film actually made me angry that the first bit of the film was so good.  I devoted time to “Fish Tank” and got excited that I was going to see something new and original but ended up getting the usual indie wrapped-up ending.

I love Michael Fassbender’s performance in this film – you may know Fassbender as the British uncover agent Lieutenant Hicox in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – his character brings such an interesting juxtaposition to this film.  At times, Connor is extremely creepy and uncomfortable, but other times he is fatherly, nurturing and kind of charming.

Andrea Arnold creates a very believable world with believable characters, but ultimately her creativity falls flat toward the conclusion.  Mia, as well as the film’s storyline, is comfortable swimming around the fish tank that is the tenement housing for the first two acts.  The director, the plot, and the characters all seemed in their element and working well.  When Mia travels over to the good side of the tracks in the third act, both the plot and the main character are left flopping on the ground while gasping for air, and Arnold can’t seem to hold the film together.

The title “Fish Tank” proves to be both an original idea and the ultimate flaw of Arnold’s project.  After seeing this director’s first two films – “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” –  it is obvious that there is definite promise in her career going forward.

This film is playing in select cities — but if you are in Chicago, you can see “Fish Tank” at the Music Box while it lasts. UPDATE:  You have exactly ONE day!

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