“Fish Tank” (2009)

Criterion had a pretty good week, what with the release of three righteous movies about people getting pulled over a waterfall by their desire. Everybody knows about Visconti’s Senso and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, but Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is the one that’s been rattling around my head since Saturday night—it’s so good it made my teeth hurt. It’s a quasi-realistic look at a 15-year old girl’s emotionally flattened life in a housing project on the wrong side of the Thames, and what happens when her trashy mother’s latest pickup (Michael Fassbender) exudes both the fatherly support and the hotblooded sexiness that she’s been craving. Arnold likes to use the natural world to contextualize her characters (two of her early shorts are called “Dog” and “Wasp”), but unlike Malick she does it in a literary, and occasionally too-explicable, way. Fish Tank has a lingering, observant style, filled with long silences and pointed visuals which call up incredibly stormy emotions; in the long sequence where Mia does something so ill-considered that it threatens to wipe out the little bit of security she has in the world, I felt like I was watching a friend deliberately throw her life away. It’s gotten a lot of comparison to Loach because of the downtrodden Brit factor, but it’s much closer to the subtler humanist groove of Mouchette, A Nos Amours, Vagabond, and Rosette. And though I adore practically all of those movies, my reaction to Fish Tank was still an oddly personal one. (All of the tenderness I was already feeling for young Katie Jarvis was capped off by this.)

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