The movies' penchant for wish fulfillment often requires them to make their triumphs monumental, but the new film Fish Tank makes a convincing case for modesty. The story of a teenage girl discovering herself in Great Britain's equivalent of a housing project, its very conception is steeped in understated humanity, but writer-director Andrea Arnold refuses to indulge melodrama at every turn, creating a film that feels like a less romantic counterpart to another recent coming-of-age story, An Education, but is just as substantial.
Katie Jarvis plays Mia, an embittered, hostile 15-year old who comes home one day to discover that her party-girl mom Joanne (Kierston Wareing) has a new boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender). Though initially standoffish, she slowly succumbs to his charms, especially after he encourages her to develop her burgeoning talents as a dancer. But as she advances closer to womanhood, attracting the attention of a young man her own age, Connor becomes increasingly protective of Mia, eventually drawing her into a relationship that tests the limits – as well as the boundaries - of their fragile, fledgling emotional bond.
Suffice it to say that the film could easily have spiraled off into any number of conventional directions, turning this girl's tale into some sort of muddy, redemptive romance, or even a crowd-pleaser about overcoming adversity cut from the mold of Flashdance or Step Up. But Arnold's focus is on Mia's age, maturity, and circumstances, and instead aims the film at more meaningful human truths. At the beginning of the film we see that she's reached a point in her adolescence where she feels as much contentiousness as connection with other girls her age, due in part to the distinct lack of attention (much less affection) she receives from her mom, but also attributable simply to that tumultuous time in almost any girl's life; desperately in search of reassurance and support, she lashes out at the people whom she needs it from the most, alienating herself from them in the process.
Connor, then, becomes so many things at once, including a father figure, a mentor, and possibly, a romantic interest, all of which have the possibility of rescuing her emotionally and perhaps even physically from the squalor and unhappiness of her daily life. Simply by being interested in her, he begins to repair years of emotional damage, although what's most interesting is the way his support has as much potential to backfire and hurt her further as he helps her develop some confidence and a stronger sense of self-worth. Her response to his attention feeds his ego and fuels feelings that ultimately manifest themselves in unhealthy ways – for both of them – leading to a tender, passionate, consensual encounter that has a devastating impact on both of them.
Jarvis brings the right amount of inner emotional turmoil to Mia, no doubt because of her age and emotional proximity to the character, but never overplays her abilities, or her awareness of what's happening to her. There's a sequence towards the end of the film in which she tries to track down Connor, leading to a fairly terrifying series of bad decisions, and we get the real sense that Mia doesn't know any better what she's doing, or why, than she does. Meanwhile, Fassbender feels destined to be a superstar, precisely because he brings such authenticity to every role he plays, and moving from an emaciated prisoner in Hunger to an avuncular film critic-turned-spy in Inglourious Basterds to this, and succeeds at creating a believable and palpable connection between himself and Jarvis that doesn't judge his behavior or more importantly suggest judgment to the audience.
Most remarkably, however, the film manages never to venture into territory that feels too safe, comfortable or conventional, which is not to say that it fails to offer the characters a reprieve from their rough lives, but it never makes any of their options to clean or easily come by. Despite her dreams of being a hip-hop dancer, she's just not that talented, and her one opportunity to follow that fantasy manifests itself in a way that feels depressingly realistic instead of inspirationally implausible. Connor, meanwhile, isn't a bad guy, but maybe just a confused, irresponsible one, and his efforts to encourage Mia are sincere until he crosses a line he didn't realize he was even moving towards.
But ultimately, the film's end pays off this modesty of tone in a way that may go over some audiences' heads, but it feels more powerful because of its authenticity. While I won't spoil it, Arnold has really created one of the absolute best coming-of-age stories I've seen in several years, because it accurately observes that sometimes just being able to survive is triumph enough, even if all of your hopes and dreams don't come true. One supposes that counts as its own kind of triumph, and therefore falls in line at least technically with the other films that share its structure; but Fish Tank takes the terrible and the neglectful and fickle and fitful aspects of everyday life, and lets its characters find a way out without giving them a map, making them stronger in the process – and us as well.