Fish Tank -- which tells the story of a hostile 15-year-old who lives in a decaying London suburb -- strikes a perfect balance between distressing content and unobtrusive style. As a result, the movie earns its place as a gritty coming-of-age story about a character thrown into situations that require resources she has yet to develop, perhaps never will.
Director Andrea Arnold draws us inside the world of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a young woman who tries to master hip-hop dancing, sneers at her abusive mother (Kiersten Wareing) and the rest of the world and eventually develops an inappropriate, borderline incestuous relationship with her mom's new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).
Nuanced where it could have been stark, Fish Tank doesn't so much create a world as explore one that already seems to exist, and it does so without giving Mia any ingratiating tendencies, aside from the fact that she occasionally tries to free an old horse that's tethered to cement block outside a trailer.
Jarvis, who plays Mia, is not a professional actress. What she lacks in technique, she makes up for with a face that's etched in defiance. The jerky, angular movements of Mia's hip-hop dancing suggest the jerky, angular movements of a life that never runs smoothly. At 15, Mia's all anger with a measure of adolescent curiosity thrown in.
The story – also by Arnold – finds its catalyst when Fassbender's Connor shows up. Conner is a hunky, working-class party guy who sometimes acts like a father to Mia and her kid sister (Charlotte Collins). At one point, he takes the family fishing, suggesting a relationship that almost approaches normality. Connor provides a key to Arnold's approach. We know from the outset that he's probably up to no good, but he's not all ogre either. And he clearly doesn't understand how to draw the line between tenderness and desire. Like everyone else in the movie, he's damaged goods.
Some of the plot developments regarding Connor are predictable, and Arnold doesn't seem to know what to do with a kid's anger any more than Mia does. But we certainly begin to understand the perils of living in a small house where mom is usually drunk and where two girls are left to fend for themselves. If the movie's resolution isn't entirely convincing, the chaos of a tough, impoverished environment feels shockingly authentic and tragically real.
Fish Tank isn't an indictment of society nor is it a trumped-up ode to teen redemption; it is, however, a tribute to Arnold's apparent belief that full immersion in a world is worth more than any message. Like Mia, we're left to fend for ourselves.