Andrea Arnold is a director at the top of her game. After the magnificent short film Wasp, which was soon followed by the gritty, uncompromising Red Road, she can now be compared to the best of Mike Leigh without apology or risk of overstatement. She’s the go-to filmmaker for the hopelessness of Britain’s still defiantly rigid class system; where a life in the projects guarantees little save the pain and misfortune similarly visited upon mom, dad, grandma, and every generation within earshot. Without sentimentality, false hope, or condescension, Arnold conveys a sense of doom without ever overplaying her hand. These are human beings, yes, and victims to a small degree, but whenever a moment of sympathy creeps in, a profound lack of common sense or poor life choice swings the pendulum back to disgust. Acutely observational in tone, the small community we witness is loud, nasty, and overcrowded, made worse by the vulgarity of the abbreviated educations on display.
Though largely plot-free, Fish Tank is, above all, the coming-of-age tale of 15-year-old Mia, though unlike nearly every effort in this overstuffed genre, no life lessons are learned, and what hope we find comes in the form of a failed audition for a strip club. Mia dreams of dancing her way out of her dreary existence, and though she has drive and desire, she lacks any visible talent. Much screen time is devoted to her routines, the painfully earnest exercises of youthful abandon, yet they are utterly dreadful from top to toe. Throughout this movie, I quietly cheered this brave directorial decision, as we’re usually expected to believe that our ghettos exist solely to hide reservoirs of untapped potential; unkempt saints denied their just due by the brutal indignities of short-sighted, bigoted gatekeepers. Mia, no plucky heroine, is a feisty, surly, foul-mouthed little bitch, and she’ll end up just like her bleached tramp of a mother, whatever her efforts.
Sure, there is young love, lust, and pained jealousy, but all evolve from the wellspring of authenticity, not detached idealism. Mia and her sister, for example, are about as close to real siblings we’re likely to see on film, and there isn’t a false note to be found in their caustic co-dependency. A new school beckons, but the film tempers its temporary optimism with a closing scene of quiet, depressing power. As the mother sadly gyrates to a driving beat while settling in for yet another booze-soaked, work-free day, both daughters join in her dance. What appears to be an atypical escape from failure and hardship is instead the ultimate representation of how generational pathology is passed along like a virus. I’ve always believed that the boy of ten is the man of forty, and here is no more striking example. These are fiercely unreflective people, “working” class in name only, who will die largely unchanged. And yet they keep trying; carving out small moments of fleeting pleasure that dissipate the precise moment they are acknowledged. It’s life as lived, without the Hollywood gloss.