FISH TANK

Posted: 07/27/2010 in Film Review [Fresh], Girl Stuff, Review
Tags: ,

So earlier this week the English government announced that it was shutting down the UK Film Council without giving details on what it’s presumed successor will be. Fish Tank was a beneficiary of that program and as you can see, was the most critically lauded UK film of 2009. Sure, the UK Film Council isn’t churning out movies like that left, right and center. At times it’s been called the “Gangster Film Council” because of the wild proliferation of the genre in the early 2000s in Guy Ritchie’s wake but no matter what the current trend of domestic UK film is, funding sources like the UK Film Council are critical to maintaining a growing international film presence instead of being a Hollywood farm team.

The best and brightest in British film all flock to LA, robbing the domestic industry of growth and economic freedom from Hollywood seed money that translates into a large chunk of creative control. That’s pretty much the way the Canadian film industry works too.

Aside from all it’s accolades, Fish Tank is an incredibly strong contender for the poster child for the cause of maintaining creatively independent domestic cinema across the globe because of how aptly and unflinchingly it portrays the desperate and disturbing condition of urban youth in England. A fact that may be lost on less Anglophilic North American critics is that the film’s protagonist Mia is truly emblematic of her deeply troubled generation. Delinquency, substance abuse, and expulsion rates in contemporary English youth are all cataclysmically high. England has become a country that fears and mistrusts it’s children, as evinced by Michael Caine’s latest outing, which is about a pensioner that goes around killing chavs and other pubescent ne’er do wells.

There have been a great many recent films tackling various perspectives on the deeply troubled nature of England’s Generation Y, but few if any others who tackle their subject matter with as much clear eyed impartiality or emotional honesty as Fish Tank. Perhaps it doesn’t attack the underlying causes as directly or harshly as other works such as the seminal star-making TV series Skins, but that’s been done elsewhere and about as well as it could be done within the mainstream. Instead Fish Tank offers up a painstakingly rendered human face on the issue that dares not only to dig into the seedy, tragic element but weaves in a tapestries of the tiny, fleeting moments of joy that punctuate a barely tolerable existence.

The minimalist yet achingly intimate presentation of Fish Tank recalls the renaissance of the American indie film that exploded into the mainstream that the newly feasibility of shooting on video ushered in during the 1990s with the rise of idiosyncratic directors like Stephen Soderbergh. Since then, shooting on video has become laden with visual cliches that gave rise to insipid neologisms like “docudrama” that suggest shaking the camera every once in a while or inexpertly zoom in on a moving object will heighten the realism and spontaneity of your narrative, turning the idea of abandoning the steadycam for a hand held DV recorder into a cynical mess rather than the revolution in cinematic storytelling that most directors have yet to grasp.

Andrea Arnold, however is a director who understands that potential far better than most, and surrounded herself with a crew with the subtle talent to tease it out. To wit, the camera is quickly understood to be an outward expression of Mia’s emotions and general mental state. Not only is Mia the focus of every shot, but the camera work and editing are perfectly in sync with her every move, drawing you deeper and deeper into her world without requiring a single word of exposition or even a musical score.

Despite Mia’s violent mother, her hard drinking foul mouthed preteen sister, and even her own stunning behavior Fish Tank presents a world that never remains bleak for long, even through the harrowing climax. There’s no easy answers to be found in the film and few fast judgments can be made and kept for long. Despite the naivety of her age and the dehumanizing effect of the grinding poverty that defines her existence, Mia is buoyed by a relentless drive to push beyond her station born partially out of her resentment of her mother and determination to avoid becoming her. Beneath the tough exterior she cultivates to hide her emotions, Mia yearns to find truth and love in a world that seems to be adept at nothing more than numbing itself and hiding the truth under layers of frivolity and vulgarity. Watching her try to connect with the world outside her head in fits and starts was far more compelling to me than her complicated and ultimately toxic relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. It was carried off well and was far more compelling than a simple sexual infatuation, but watching Mia build herself up through her dancing and ultimately refuse to compromise herself in order to preserve her dignity was a far more rewarding experience.

Fish Tank is a rare breed of film that is as brilliantly realized as it is critically important to the time and place it evokes, sitting comfortably alongside modern classics like Requiem For a Dream, Kids, or Thirteen. We can only hope that the support system that made Fish Tank possible isn’t ravaged the same way that the Blair-Gordon regime did the social safety net, resulting in the crushing environment the film evokes.

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