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The discovery of Cannes (so far)? Katie Jarvis.

The discovery of Cannes (so far)? Katie Jarvis.

Katie Jarvis was having an argument with her boyfriend across a train platform at Tibury Town station in the East of England when she was approached by a casting director for Andrea Arnold’s second feature, “Fish Tank.” Jarvis, who’d never acted before, didn’t believe she was actually being approached for a film and intially declined to give over her phone number. Later, when asked to dance during an audition, she also declined. But, dancing is crucial to the young character of Mia in the film, so the room was cleared and she danced alone in front of a camera.

“We were looking for a real girl,” Arnold said this morning in Cannes. Well, in Katie Jarvis they certainly found one. Jarvis’ bio reads simply: “Katie makes her acting debut in ‘Fish Tank’.”

Starring as Mia in every scene in “Fish Tank,” Katie Jarvis is the first major acting discovery of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It’s just a shame she isn’t in the South of France for her moment in the spotlight. The 17 year old gave birth to a baby one week ago, so she declined to attend.

The often bleak story of a troubled and isolated fifteen year old girl who lives with her heavy-drinking mother and smart-talking younger sister in a dreary British council housing complex, “Fish Tank” follows Mia as she starts to bond with her mom’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).

Andrea Arnold, director of the Cannes competition entry “Fish Tank,” at the festival today. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Andrea Arnold made her new film in an intimate 4 x 3 format to literally center the image on her young lead actor at all times, frequently following the character around in that same way that The Dardenne Brothers or Gus Van Sant have traced their actors on camera. Shot in sequence and in the hand-held tradition of other British realism, “Fish Tank” evokes the documentary filmmaking tradition that Andrea Arnold brings to her work from her early days in television. It’s her second time with a feature film in Cannes after 2006’s Prix du Jury prize-winner “Red Road.” Before making the leap to narrative features, Arnold gained international attention for her acclaimed short films, “Milk,” “Dog,” and “Wasp.”

The lives of Arnold’s characters in “Fish Tank” often seem so bleak and they seem so trapped. Then, however, a song comes on and they escape by dancing. Yet, not in that stylized “Billy Elliot” fashion, with a loud, driving soundtrack. In this case, a music video is on the TV or a tune played on little speakers connected to a portable Discman, And the characters escape.

Personal dramas lead to occasionally dramatic twists and turns for this trio of females in “Fish Tank,” culminating in a tender, unexpected moment of release near the end of the film, just as lives seem poised to change.

In her own hotel room here in Cannes yesterday, “Fish Tank” director Andrea Arnold admitted that she was feeling quite anxious ahead of today’s world premiere. “I put on my iPod and had a good old dance around the room,” she admitted, “I think that dance is a great way for relieving tension.”

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