If Flashdance had been made by one of England's kitchen-sink realist directors like Ken Loach, it probably would've looked a lot like Fish Tank. Instead of a gorgeous welder in leg warmers, however, director Andrea Arnold's drama depicts a hostile teenager in a hoodie who finds solace in hip-hop dancing. When she's not busting her moves in private, 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) hurls profane insults and occasional punches at nearly everyone in reach. She might really be a maniac.
The edgy, superbly acted film takes its name from a slang term for a housing project with glass fronts. The fish tank provides both prison and playground for Mia and other half-wild children. Mia's neglectful, hard-partying young mother (Kierston Wareing) clearly views her daughter as romantic competition rather than a budding woman who needs to be nurtured. When Mia's mother takes up with nice, hunky Irish bloke Connor (Inglorious Basterds' Michael Fassbender), he at first seems like merely the latest hook-up. But Connor turns out to be unexpectedly steady and supportive of Mia's dance aspirations. Mia blossoms in the glow of a positive adult role model and male influence. At the same time, an electric sexual tension runs between Connor and Mia. She spies on him and her mum, flounces around underdressed in his presence, and tries to make him jealous.
Arnold previously helmed her compelling first feature Red Road and won an Oscar for her live-action short film "Wasp." She's genius at getting into the heads of her unreflective characters. The dialogue almost never spells out the relationships, and the exchange, "I hate you!" "I hate you, too," here means just the opposite. But the audience can recognize Mia and the supporting roles' feelings and intentions even better than the characters can.
You might be able to predict the third-act revelation (especially if you've seen An Education), but then Fish Tank takes a shocking turn that threatens to erase our empathy for Mia. Jarvis doesn't soft-pedal her performance as Mia, who almost blindly lashes out at other people. If Arnold and Jarvis didn't keep us so attuned to her emotions, she'd be almost impossible to like. Fish Tank even realistically conveys young Mia's limitations as a would-be dancer, since she's hardly a Broadway-ready prodigy. Nevertheless, we recognize how dance offers Mia her rare moments of transcendence, even if her steps convey more potential than flash.