Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another British Education: Fish Tank

Growing up is not easy in the working class section of England’s Essex County, and Mia certainly is not making it any easier. You could call her a hard kid to love, but few have ever bothered trying, except maybe her younger sister. At least she finds some satisfaction through her dancing in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (trailer here), a Ken Loach-style film for the hip hop set opening tomorrow in New York.

Mia’s self-absorbed mother is an aging party girl. Her biological father is out of picture. Without any real authority figures, Mia runs wild through the neighborhood. She only finds temporary escape in the hip hop steps she practices in a vacant apartment. Then one morning a strange man appears in her apartment. He turns out to be Mom’s special friend Connor, who will be staying with them for a while. At least Connor tries to make an effort to be cool, talking music with Mia and giving her beer money. In fact, Mia starts to like him quite a bit.

In many ways, Tank is an unsentimental corrective to Lone Scherig’s An Education, paralleling that far breezier coming-of-age film in many respects. Yet, when events head in the direction you might expect, it is not an empowering life lesson Mia learns. Instead, things get decidedly messy. Mia gets a heck of a lesson in life though.

Few films have a stronger sense of place than Tank, but it is hardly likely to please the Essex tourism bureau. Mia’s world of crummy housing projects and highway intersections looks as if it could only produce alienation and longing. It is an atmosphere that fosters violence, both in very real physical threats and through slow burning resentments. Yet while Tank might present a largely amoral environment, it is not an immoral film. Actions very definitely have emotional consequences here.

Carey Mulligan might be generating Oscar buzz for Education, but Katie Jarvis blows her out of the water with her remarkable debut performance as Mia. Discovered in a train station, the first-time actor Jarvis nails it in every scene, projecting toughness and vulnerability in her completely natural, unaffected breakthrough star turn. As Connor, the outwardly charming ladies man, Michael Fassbender wisely tacks a more understated course rather than going for an over-the-top smarminess, making Mia’s attraction only too credible.

With its unforgettable not-as-tough-she-thinks protagonist, the gritty Tank has a visceral immediacy that is hard to shake off. Relentlessly naturalistic and often profane, it is not exactly feel-good cinema, but it is powerful stuff. It opens tomorrow (1/15) in New York at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.