in Criterion Month

Fish Tank (2009)

Any time we do a month like this, it’s always fun to see the different themes and similarities that connect many of the films, even though with Criterion month, there really isn’t much intention for the films to have anything in common. But one genre that has seemed to crop up quite a bit this year is the coming-of-age film, and in particular ones done by either first time or up-and-coming directors. Fish Tank is another film that falls into both these categories, which firmly established Andrea Arnold as a fresh new voice whose career so far appears to be as unpredictable as this film’s main character.

The young adult we see come of age in Fish Tank is Mia (Katie Jarvis), a socially isolated and volatile girl living in working-class East London with her mom Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and sister Tyler. Mia and Joanne’s relationship seems to not be the greatest, as her mom spends a lot more time with her new boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender). That said, Conor is mostly kind and supportive of Mia, but seems a bit off, while Mia just can’t help but be wary of a new man in her mom’s life. Then despite the fact that Mia’s a bit of a loner and has a somewhat turbulent home life, she does have the will to dance. We see in several scenes that she has an affinity for hip-hop dance, and seems to have some talent, if a lack of direction as to what to do with it.

Things become more complicated when Mia eventually has sex with Conor, and if that wasn’t bad enough, Mia learns more about Conor that makes pretty much all of his actions seem pretty icky. Which, perhaps isn’t surprising, considering Michael Fassbender was just getting started on his fruitful career of playing characters that walk an uncomfortable line between unpleasant and charming. Anyways, Mia also has the impending reality of being sent off to boarding school to worry about, while the end of this movie isn’t terribly hopeful as to Mia’s future. Though at the same time, there is this underlying feeling that things must surely get better for this girl eventually, right?

There’s certainly traces of The 400 Blows in this movie, seeing as it’s about a troubled youth who can’t help but get into shenanigans just because it’s almost a kind of personality flaw. The other movie that came to mind was last year’s The Florida Project. Mostly because that film, much like Fish Tank, made me think about the fact that poverty is not something that most films get right, since it’s hard not to condescend or throw a pity party for the less fortunate on film. But Fish Tank never really milks these characters’ economic shortcomings; it more just treats their world like any other, with the same wants and desires and compulsions that anyone else has. Also, I’m realizing that it would probably make sense for me to compare this film to my last pick Vagabond, but for some reason that film feels like something else entirely.

That said, much like Vagabond, a big part of what makes Fish Tank compelling is how you’re never sure what to expect Mia to do next. Obviously, it’s good for any film to be less than predictable, but because Mia is vivacious enough and makes a lot of childish immature decisions (despite her budding adulthood), you kind of assume she’s going to do the wrong things in most situations even though you’re rooting for her to do the right thing. I’m not sure exactly where that empathy for this character comes from. She’s a complete brat and loudmouth for most of Fish Tank, but I suppose by seeing the fact that she hasn’t had the best upbringing, you want to her to succeed in spite of the raw deal she’s been handed in life.

Well, this my final film of this year’s Criterion month, and it seems like a good one to go out on, considering I alluded to both some earlier films that this one reminded me of, as well as some newer ones. Because that’s what I always enjoy about venturing into cinema’s past – connecting the dots between other times and other films as well as seeing how different films fit into the lineage of where filmmaking as an art form is headed. And well, this month (and Criterion as a whole) forces me to see more movies that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, while also getting to live a little bit in the skin of characters from different backgrounds and parts of the world. Also, I didn’t see a single Criterion movie this year that I didn’t enjoy, so that’s a win in my book.