If there is one feeling that Fish Tank cannot be accused of lacking, it is immediacy. From the opening, Andrea Arnold makes it clear that the film will focus entirely on the volatile, forceful character of Mia (Katie Jarvis), following her relentlessly as she argues on the phone, head-butts another girl, and tries to free a horse in rapid succession. Throughout, Robbie Ryan’s camera follows her, the consistent handheld sometimes breaks into incomprehensibility as it runs to keep up with her youthful vigor. The effect, especially in the opening, is almost punishing—the film operates with zero degree of remove, rejecting any sense of commentary towards its characters in favor of representing them as they are, sometimes in an admittedly worrying way. Mia’s mother and especially her sister are rather ghastly characters, even more volatile without much to offset their excessive vulgarity.
For all of the excessive volatility of Mia’s character, Fish Tank works best when it focuses on her and, a bit later in the film, Conor (Michael Fassbender). Much of this is due to Jarvis’s performance, which somehow exceeds Arnold’s fervor in portraying the realism of her character’s situation. Mia is only 15 years older, but Jarvis seemingly plays her as someone of wildly varying ages depending on her situation: sometimes cocky, sometimes aggressive, sometimes withdrawn, but always visibly energetic. Before Conor arrives, she carries the movie, especially in the scenes where she practices her dancing. It is her passion, and if she is not especially good, she puts her heart into it, as she does with most of her interactions.
This vigor catches the attention of Conor, and Fish Tank almost seems to become a different film after his introduction. The other characters are still there, and there is still plenty of immediacy to go around, but Fassbender introduces a much-needed injection of easygoingness (the continual use of Bobby Womack’s cover of “California Dreamin'” certainly helps), and even the camera seems to stabilize, as if he serves as an anchor to Mia. The situations become much more stable, and the movie slowly builds to the inevitable between Mia and Conor, shot mostly in a relatively long shot and with true tenderness.
Unfortunately, the film almost completely loses itself completely afterwards, elongating the day before Mia’s dancing audition into a rather enervating half-hour where Mia’s actions become even less comprehensible and desparate. Much of the sequence falls back into the rut of just following Mia as she runs, and even the resolution feels inert; nothing has changed for Mia, and it feels like a means to an end. The film does regain its footing after that, offering resolutions in sharp succession, especially a rather well-considered one with Conor.
The very ending of the film comes somewhat out of the blue, but it feels almost like a sort of redemption or a fresh start for Mia. Her situation is as chaotic as ever, but there is a clear sense of some sort of change; whether it be for good or ill is undetermined. Fish Tank is unfailing in its depiction of a certain mindset, but despite considerable detriments resulting from this approach during the movie, it certainly lingers in the mind.