Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Film Review - Fish Tank

Writer/director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Griffths
Social Realist drama, 123 minutes

This past year has been a terrific one for women directors. Kathryn Bigelow is only one of the many who had prominent releases. We also saw major films from Nora Ephron (Julie & Julia), Jane Campion (Bright Star), Lone Scherfig (An Education), Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body), Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated), Drew Barrymore (Whip It), Mira Nair (Amelia), Anne Fontaine (Coco avant Chanel), and many others. This past weekend, Toronto saw the theatrical release of Fish Tank which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and just won Outstanding British film at the BAFTA Awards.

Fish Tank is a compelling coming-of-age drama set in the public housing underbelly of Essex, east of London. Working class folks bark at each other with gusto and scathing profanity. Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a troubled 15-year-old who fights other girls but dreams of becoming a hip-hop dancer like them. She also develops an unhealthy crush on her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender).

The young actress Jarvis is a revelation in this film, and was the deserving winner of Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards, and Young British Performer of the Year at the London Film Critics Circle awards. She’s like a younger hard-boiled Kristen Stewart with a Cockney accent, and she carries the film with the intensity and drive of Émilie Dequenne in the Dardenne brothers’ film Rosetta. Arnold discovered Jarvis at the Tilbury Town Station platform having an argument with her boyfriend. Jarvis had never acted before and didn’t like dancing, but she had the toughness and grit that the character Mia needed.

The rest of the cast is also very strong. Fassbender was memorable in the brilliant film Hunger, my favourite film of 2009. He is completely different here, yet equally terrific. Rebecca Griffiths is a hoot as Mia’s younger sister.

Arnold’s directing style in here seems to tip its hat to the Dardennes. Though she’s been lumped in with other British social realist filmmakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, she employs a more kinetic style. She keeps the actors moving and hand-held camera work follows suit.

I had some reservations when the hip-hop dancing aspect first appeared. That clichéd material was never interesting even before it became done to death. But Arnold manages to avoid the typical nonsense that we’ve seen before in films like Save the Last Dance and Step Up. She actually takes the story in an unsettling direction, one that may limit its appeal to queasy North American audiences. But it worked for the story and didn’t feel exploitative or cheap. Fish Tank is a much more authentic and interesting drama than the comparable film Precious. Arnold has crafted a splendid indie feature with a very grounded story and characters.

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