Fish Tank made a lot of people’s “Top ____” lists last year. In a lot of ways it really deserves it. Newcomer Katie Jarvis gives a tense performance full of all of the energy of teen angst. The introduction to her character Mia has her head-butting another girl in the nose. Intense. Good screenwriting rule of thumb: give me an intro to a character so that I can answer the question “Mia is the type of character who would _________.” Arnold does just that by juxtaposing the head-butting scene with one where Mia practices breakdancing by herself in an abandoned apartment.
Jarvis aside, much has been made of Fish Tank as social commentary. Some have lauded its merits as such, while its detractors claim that it fails to examine with a true magnifying glass and that its observations are really limited to setting and not a dialogue. So what is a social commentary? I think we can all logically imply that it is a film (in this case) that looks at some kind of a social aspect of a society and comments on that trait. For example, in the (undeservedly) popular film Avatar there are two societal groups. One has technology, the other nature. We can intuit that the film is attempting to look at broader, real-world situations and show the inherent-flaws and dangers in any attempt to remove an indigenous people from its habitat.
Another recent and popular one. District 9 uses the science-fiction genre and the alien v. human setup as commentary on apartheid.
But is it enough to observe and show, or must the filmmaker involve him/herself in the greater argument? Avatar, for all its flaws, takes a clear side. It’s a surface level critique, failing to delve deep into any real underlying reasons, pragmatic approaches, pitfalls, etc, but observational it is not.
So now we have Fish Tank. I will admit off the bat that I am unfamiliar with socio-economic situations in the UK. The following may be naturally flawed given this myopia. Mia lives in the Council Estate, which, as I understand it, is a sort of tenement housing project within the UK and Ireland. Contrary to the connotations associated with the word “tenement” the Council Estate looks to serve middle-class citizens with affordable, but also livable, living conditions.
Mia and her mother and younger sister live in one such apartment. It’s not run-down but not spacious. Arnold veers away from any attempts to portray it as claustrophobic. There is no hint that the mother has a job, but money for the family does not seem to be an issue, though we also get the sense that it is not in excess. In short, Mia and co. seem to fit squarely into a form of lower-middle class.
Other issues are raised: Mia has problems at school and is threatened to be sent to a new one. It is unclear whether this is one for adolescents with emotional problems or not. Mia is violent and her behavior is often irrational. Are these products of the home and neighborhood? Possibly. Her mother drinks a lot, has a younger daughter who can’t be older than 8 who smokes, and is unable to keep any kind of control over Mia. When Mia announces that she slept with her boyfriend her mother’s response is one of disconcern.
More to consider: Mia’s mother brings home a boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor is charming, handsome, and a father-figure. Connor has a job in retail, Mia’s mother is unemployed. Connor lives in a cookie-cutter, Stepford Wives-looking neighborhood, while the wide shots of Mia’s apartment reveal it to be the tenement that it is (or tries not to be). Connor is a father figure (comes from a good home), Mia’s mother is not (does not – implied – come from, or better yet run, a good home).
SPOILERS: And the further we go the less easy this becomes. Connor, the great father figure with the good job and the good home, has sex with Mia and then disappears the next morning. Mia is 15. Statutory rape. Mia finds him and discovers that he has a wife and child. She kidnaps his child, almost drowns her, returns the girl. Connor finds her as she walks home late at night, jumps out of his car, and in an intense scene, wordlessly slaps her. There is no question that this is the end of everything between them. Mia will not tell anyone about their sexual encounter. Connor will not tell anyone about the kidnapping. It’s not a silent agreement. Instead, Connor, the one who has not truly lost anything (do we believe Mia when she says she slept with her boyfriend? I didn’t.) and the one who has done the “taking advantage of” gets away with it. Mia just gets away. She leaves with a boy her age for Wales.
There’s plenty more little hints that I’ll mention off-hand here but not give more time to. Connor has a video camera. Connor listens to music that is not rap and not on MTV. Connor drives a hatchback. The list goes on.
So…back to this whole social commentary thing. Here’s what Arnold has done. She has set-up the social divide visually (exterior of Connor’s home versus Mia’s), aurally (difference in music), and economically (employment versus unemployment). There is a direct comment here. Connor gets away with statutory rape because of “who” he is, or better, where he’s from. This is not any attempt at documentary call-to-action, but it is a film that is well aware of the divide.
One last thing to note, which is the director’s job with extras. Mia enters Connor’s neighborhood toward the end. Another girl crosses her path. The girl is framed so as not to be the focus (camera follows Mia who is center-frame). The girl gives Mia a look that says, “you don’t belong here.” They’re dressed differently. The girl is carrying a backpack – she might be on her way to school. This is the same way that I addressed a shot in Mike Leigh’s excellent film Another Year. Yes, this is more observational. But also yes, this is the director not stepping back and letting the camera do the commenting. This is Arnold literally directing a scene to say something, when nothing is actually said.
Is Fish Tank social commentary? Yes. Is it an attempt to dissect and place Mia and her family within the analogy of a greater UK? Not really. It works in this way similarly to Precious (though thankfully, Fish Tank is much better and less heavy-handed film): both girls are metaphor that can be extended to the aforementioned social commentary, but they are also there to function as personal story. Perhaps this commentary is more gender than socially related.