Fish Tank (2009) is not an easy film to watch but it’s very truthfully told and it will be difficult to find another film as mesmerizing and powerful as this one.
This is a heart-wrenchingly honest portrayal of life in a low income housing estate in Essex, England, where a young single mother lives in a small apartment with her two children. While dating young men for sex and food, she neglects her two daughters who end up angry, resentful and mostly fend for themselves.
This grim coming-of-age story is told from the point of view of the older troubled daughter Mia, played by Katie Jarvis, who is fifteen and loves dancing to hip hop music. When her mother’s new boyfriend, played by Michael Fassbender, who was recently seen in Inglourious Basterds (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011) and Prometheus (2012), shows up to stay with them, he has a stabilizing effect on this cruel all female family who are constantly bickering with each other.
Filmed documentary style, Fish Tank is a brutally heartbreaking depiction of the bitter reality in a dysfunctional family incapable of showing each other any love or compassion. It will leave you shaking your head in horror at the loss of innocence at such a tender age.
The mother, played by Kierston Wareing, seems to resent having to raise these kids by herself and, unable to cope with the responsibility, she takes out her frustrations on them. Drunk and partying most of the time, her only concern is for satisfying her own needs. There are no tender moments between the girls in this family but when a charming young adult male shows up, the girls are on their best behavior. He seems to have a calming effect on the family and treats them each with respect and understanding, something that the daughters are not familiar with but they enjoy his company if only for the fact that their mother seems more civil when he’s around.
Award winning UK writer and director Andrea Arnold, using her own experiences, knows this harsh world inside out and grew up under similar circumstances shown in the film, with a single mother raising four children by herself in a housing block. She is passionate and non-judgmental while telling powerful stories of hardship that she has experienced first-hand.
All the performances are absolutely believable and you may feel uncomfortable as you are getting a look into a very private world of abuse and neglect where one wishes one could intervene but are helpless as the characters careen toward self-destruction. There is a somewhat hopeful note at the end but it comes with an emotionally devastating sadness. It took me a while to recover from this film but it will stay with me for a long time to come.
Andrea Arnold is a promising new talented director to watch out for. She has already won an Academy award for her third short film called Wasp (2005), which is also about a single mother raising four children while desperately trying to date men and survive on almost nothing, as well as two Jury prizes at the Cannes film festival for her first two feature films Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank.
All her short films are included on the new Criterion Blu-ray edition of the film and are all worth seeing and just as strong and well performed as the feature. Don’t miss this amazing experience.