Even after the advent of psychology, feminism, and the sexual revolution, female desire remains culturally discomfiting, a topic to be avoided or willfully mystified. Outside of hyper-hormonal slapstick, adolescent desire is just as taboo. Furthermore, female adolescent desire is so socially unsavory that even the dubiously chaste "Twilight" counts as a welcome corrective. Enter Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," a film so fearless, honest, and wise about emergent female sexuality that no grading curve is necessary. She approaches sex not as an aspect of politics but of experience, continuous with life's other impulses, bafflements, dangers, and joys.
Arnold's combustible first feature, "Red Road," wedded British kitchen sink realism with moody expressionism, a marriage she revisits and intensifies with "Fish Tank." Her two films are as unsentimental as they are sensitive, and so attuned to the messy modalities of behavior that even tallies of fear and heartbreak accumulate with dignity. Urban living's concrete drabness is both bemoaned and limned with color and grace, the smallest and most desolate corner yet capable of offering escape and earthbound pleasure. Her characters may not transcend their place in the world, but at least they're allowed to fully inhabit it.
In "Fish Tank," a fifteen-year-old named Mia (Katie Jarvis, a complete and mesmerizing presence) careens around an English apartment complex motored by frustration and rage. During an Odyssean opening sequence she dances alone, barks into a cell phone, throws rocks at a window, head-butts a girl, and trades f-bombs and door slams with her mother and younger sister. The sequence seems a touch too efficient, but does effectively collar the viewer into Mia's world -- and most crucially, into her point of view. Henceforth the camera doesn't just follow Mia around, it attends, encircles and becomes her. It both registers and expresses her fluctuating moods. Whether she's rehearsing dance moves, peering through chain link, or slumping in the backseat of a car, the camera matches her sightlines to actively, subjectively look. When her dishy, boozy single mother's latest conquest appears in her kitchen one morning, the camera ogles him with furtive, shameless glances. Connor (Michael Fassbender, sex on a stick here) notices her too, and helps charge the air with vague entendres, but the camera fixes not on her state of relative undress (t-shirt and panties) but on his long, muscular torso and ass arching out of low-slung jeans. It's Mia's eureka moment of exploding desire, as spectacular and troubling as anyone could hope for. She tells him to fuck off, which of course means she's hooked.
Yet it would be unfair to color Mia and Connor's rapport as only sexual, for it also has platonic and familial tints. As far as we can tell, Connor is the first person who talks to Mia as if she were an adult. Connor honors her with civil conversation, genuine interest, and frank compliments. She comes to see herself the way he sees her: as a woman. Exiled upstairs while mom (Kierston Wareing, resplendently braless but constrained by a one-note character) hosts a bump-and-grind house party, Mia falls asleep in her mom's room but awakens when Connor carries her off to bed. Pretending to slumber, she peers down to watch him remove her shoes and pants, discovering her own body as he does the same. With desire comes power, of course, and it's something this previously invisible, embattled truant thrills to possess. His power is just as great (and legally speaking, much greater), but Arnold stays close to Mia, attending her choices and honoring the erotics of her self-possession. To the aching strains of Bobby Womack she dances into the unknown, eager for the possibilities but ignorant of the consequences.
Several notes in the film's final act seem a bit off -- such as an extended turn into thriller territory, a tardy and literally choreographed bid for familial depth, and an impersonally elegiac finale -- but only because Arnold so succeeds at establishing and convincing of Mia's perspective that any kind of distance from it feels like a betrayal. What in any other movie could be a highlight -- a kidnapping tangent provides several minutes of breathless tension -- pales in comparison to the rest of the film's casually profound intimacy. But even these missteps follow a certain logic, for as Mia pushes too far so does Arnold's filmmaking, purposefully making Mia alien to us just as she becomes alien to herself. She wasn't ready for the costs of being a woman -- for the heartbreak, the resentments, the cowardice of men. But suddenly there's a tomorrow, a life beyond the council flat and even beyond Connor. And tomorrow she'll be ready.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer and host of the Reverse Shot Talkies video series. He has also written for Slate and Stop Smiling, among other publications.]
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]