In the sweetest emotional exchange in “Fish Tank,” a girl throws her arms around her big sister and sobs, “I hate you.”
“I hate you, too,” replies Mia (Katie Jarvis), with a fondness we haven’t heard from her before. A jaded 15-year-old, Mia is a foul-mouthed but open-hearted survivor of the rough coming-of-age trial that constitutes Andrea Arnold’s alternately bracing and contrived movie.
Winner earlier this month of a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award — the Brits’ answer to the Oscars — for outstanding British film, “Fish Tank” sticks to the sort of bleak, low-income housing projects Arnold focused on in her terrific “Red Road” (2006). Mia lives with kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and their mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), who looks barely older than her children. In their loud, high-rise apartment, the TV blares constantly, Joanne is always smoking and drinking (so are her daughters), and the three of them curse one another with paint-peeling vehemence.
The bitterness and squalor get troweled on so thickly at the start that a viewer might fear the movie is going to be a kitchen-sink sociological tract – a Caucasian, UK cousin of, say, “Precious.” That feeling is compounded by what look like bursts of faux uplift: Mia hopes to escape her dead-end life by becoming a dancer and repeatedly tries to liberate a white horse tied up in a nearby trailer park.
But give the movie a chance. After all, the dancing that Mia aspires to is of the skanky, music-video sort, and that white horse is starving to death. It won’t be carrying Mia into any sort of fairy-tale kingdom at the end.
There is a sort of Prince Charming in the person of Connor, mom’s new boyfriend. Played with a fantastic mix of paternal charm and boyish sexiness by Michael Fassbender (of “Hunger” and “Inglourious Basterds”), Connor is the first person in a while who seems to actually see Mia, and care what she thinks. Which could be either a very good or a very bad thing.
The plot of “Fish Tank” is slim and, after a certain point, predictable. What makes it worth watching is writer-director Arnold’s filmmaking process, which owes a debt to fellow UK filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Shooting in chronological sequence, she reportedly fed her actors only portions of the script at a time. They didn’t know exactly where the drama was headed, or what would happen to their characters. The result, for the viewer, is a shared sense of discovery. And, occasionally, of danger.
“Fish Tank.” With Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing. Unrated. 123 minutes. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.