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.