When adults fail children

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Fish Tank (MA). Writer/Director: Andrea Arnold. Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing. Running time: 123 minutes

Katie Jarvis, Fish TankFish Tank is a hard film to watch. It's a laconic, no frills drama — too long, but no less affecting and memorable for it — about the life of a troubled English teen, Mia (Jarvis). Troubled is definitely the word: the film takes us into uncomfortable corners of the cramped and grimy glass tank of Mia's life. Fish Tank is shot in hand-held digital video, giving rougher edges to the already rough working class Essex world in which she lives.

Mia is a precocious, ferocious teenager. Not fearless, but she masks hurt and fear with fury. During a fight with a peer, she delivers a swift head butt to the other girl's face before striding righteously away. Her interactions with her uncaring flake of a single mother, Joanne (Wareing) are verbally rather than physically violent; in this case, Mia's language would be repulsive if she did not get as good as she gave.

But Mia is also compassionate. When she sees a sickly horse chained up in an abandoned lot, she jumps the rickety cyclone fence and attempts to set the beast free. The childlikeness of this kind gesture (after all, what young girl would not be moved by the plight of a horse?) is cut short: the horse's owners, two grown and brutish men, suddenly appear and begin to menace Mia. They attack her, but, viciously, she fights them off (not bad for a 15-year-old girl), and flees.

Life begins to change for Mia when Joanne brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Fassbender). Mia hits it off with this extroverted Irishman. He encourages Mia with her dream to become a dancer. His treatment of her is somewhere sex-ward of fatherly. The feeling is mutual, and even actively encouraged by Mia. Then again, she is only 15, and he supposedly is a responsible adult.

The film plies a murky fog of sexual ethics, but its portrayal of Connor and Mia's deeply ambiguous attraction is captivating. A scene where Connor carries Mia, who pretends to sleep, to her bedroom and removes her jeans — gently, so as not to wake her — in order to put her into bed, finds a surprisingly fine line between tender and predatory. This kind of subtle, breathless stuff is Fish Tank at its best.

Debut actor Jarvis' performance is astonishing. During the worst moments that confront Mia, Jarvis channels tragedy into barrages of righteous fury. Circumstances and unbridled emotion eventually turn Mia almost monstrous, but we never lose sight of the child within. She has been failed and damaged by people who should care; people who, if not actively protecting her from harm, should at least refrain from harming her themselves. So although we can't forgive all her sins, we can understand them.

The film is a condemnation of irresponsible adults, not of misbehaving youths. The damage to Mia is not yet total. She can be safe, if she can first get free. That entails making some right, difficult choices. But that can be hard to do when you are an adolescent with no wise adult to guide you.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold, Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Essex



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Existing comments

Am I missing something here? Since when is the 'dignity' of a group of abusive, drug, alcohol and porn addicted men and youths more important than the dignity of grandmothers, mothers, teenagers, children and ordinary fathers struggling to ensure their families have enough to eat, their kids go to school and everyone sleeps at night without fear of domestic violence/sexual abuse?

Even the skimpy evidence we have of income quarantining in the Northern Territory indicates that it is working for those for whom it is intended to help. (See articles on almost a daily basis from highly regarded journalists in highly regarded broadsheets).

Perhaps Andrew Hamilton should discard his male, celibate, intellectually ethical boots and walk barefoot for a mile or two with the victims of dysfunctional but 'ethically dignified' communities. Perhaps more importantly he should consider that there is precious little dignity in receiving government handouts, especially when this indignity is compounded by the further erosion of any vestige of human dignity for everyone in the community.
Elizabeth McKenzie | 24 June 2010


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