Dir. Andrea Arnold
(2010, Not Rated, 122 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Fish Tank succeeds on the strength of two fine performances by Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender and the writing and directing of Andrea Arnold. Jarvis plays Mia, a rebellious fifteen-year-old girl living in low-income housing with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), and Fassbender plays Joanne’s new boyfriend, Connor, a charming Irishman who works as a security guard at a hardware store. When Connor first encounters Mia one morning, he’s naked to the waist, having clearly spent the night, and watches her while she dances to a hip-hop music video on TV. “You dance like a black,” he tells her. He means that as a compliment.

Michael Fassbender, as Connor

There’s something not quite right about his relationship with Mia, but Arnold doesn’t play the tension between them as predatory. Rather, she captures their uneasy push-and-pull dynamic with subtle insight. There’s a clear sexual component, but at first it comes mostly from Mia, who sees Connor as a way to defeat her mother, and she’s such a bad mother that sometimes we can’t help but root for Mia to succeed. Joanne is the kind of caregiver who will cruelly tell her daughter that she almost had her aborted, as if describing a missed opportunity. Deciding Mia has a discipline problem and is too much to handle (Mia learned from the best), Joanne arranges to send her away to a boarding school that will relieve her of the inconvenience of being a parent.

What begins for Mia as a game of one-upmanship with her mother turns into an adolescent crush. She wants Connor, and he encourages her crush in ways that make us uneasy, but Fassbender’s performance is nuanced in a way that avoids making Connor strictly a villain. There’s an air of mystery to him; he’s alluring and sinister at the same time, genuinely fond of Mia, but maybe a little too fond, keeping just enough distance to pique her interest but not enough to maintain appropriate boundaries. And Mia, who is a little like Lisbeth Salander except without the dragon tattoo, is brittle but strong-willed, naïve but not a victim.

After their relationship comes to a head in a remarkably charged scene, there’s a discovery that comes as a surprise to Mia, but maybe not the audience, and then Mia makes an impulsive decision that surprises everyone, possibly even herself. But the director doesn’t seem interested in good or bad; she observes, compassionately and without judgment, who Mia is and what such treatment from those around her has made of her in her scant fifteen years. Above all Fish Tank is about disillusionment; Mia has had to grow up fast, but she still has a lot to learn.