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Movie Review

Fish Tank

Talent and tension on display in ‘Fish Tank’

Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old living in a housing project, is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), in Andrea Arnold’s film. Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old living in a housing project, is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), in Andrea Arnold’s film. (Holly Horner/Ifc Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 29, 2010

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The ambiguous title of “Fish Tank’’ possibly refers to the empty, unrented high-rise apartment where the film’s 15-year-old heroine Mia (Katie Jarvis) practices her dance routines in secret. The big picture window looks straight out onto the blue, and as Mia weaves and undulates through her moves, what’s below the window line remains invisible: the poverty-ridden housing project in which she lives, the squalor and anger of everyone who lives there, the expectations that go nowhere. She’s in a bubble.

We’re in the British kitchen-sink genre, subcategory coming-of-age. Little girls swap ciggies and nick their mums’ booze; no one talks when they can shriek; the C-word, so taboo in the US and so necessary to English daily life, is sprayed everywhere like graffiti. Mia’s face is hard and shut down when anyone else is in the room; only when she’s alone do we see what she really looks like. Cross her, though, and she’ll head-butt you in the nose.

“Fish Tank’’ is the story of what happens when Mia meets her mother’s new boyfriend and has a chance at a dance audition, and it unfolds with both startling immediacy and a creeping sense that you’ve seen it all before. The writer-director is Andrea Arnold, who made the similarly unnerving “Red Road’’ in 2006; she’s either on the verge of becoming a major talent or turning stylish and soft. In any event, the opening scenes of “Fish Tank’’ are enough to break your heart. With a bare minimum of dialogue - none of which I can print - Arnold establishes Mia’s barren environment and the hope and fury that war beneath the surface of the girl’s skin.

The mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), is still young and pretty, not yet dead inside but on the way, and Mia has a kid sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who’s a smart little street rat. When Joanne brings the rangy, sexy Connor (Michael Fassbender) home from the pub one night, his maleness fills a void the three women didn’t even know was there.

Mia especially is taken with this easygoing man who volleys her insults right back, encourages her dancing, and never looks at her like he wants to eat her up. That only makes her hungrier, and Arnold rather brilliantly uses pacing, lighting, music (including a choice Bobby Womack cover of “California Dreamin’ ’’) to build a mood of gentle yet insistent eroticism. Everyone knows where this is going, and everyone seems powerless to stop it.

The director’s eye for detail at times seems magical: When Mia caresses a horse she has found chained in a weed-strewn lot, we can almost feel the texture of the animal’s weathered flank. This is the way a teenager raging on the edge of life experiences the world, and “Fish Tank’’ at times makes Mia’s emotions so vivid you gasp for breath.

At the same time, that horse obviously symbolizes the girl’s wish for freedom and its owner, a tender young traveler named Billy (Harry Treadaway), too neatly represents a less risky romantic path for Mia to take. The rough, organic ambience of the film’s opening scenes - in which we seem to be watching life unfold in real-time - gives way to a more conventionally sentimental, if scuffed-up, kind of storytelling. You start to notice the similarities to other films; toward the end, “Fish Tank’’ is looking more and more like “An Education’’ set in the modern-day lower depths. There’s a final shot that aims for poetry and lands in the trite.

It’s a disappointment only because Arnold has a knack for making a scene breathe as if you’re right there in the middle of it, and because Jarvis tacks between her character’s volcanic emotions with the grace of a born dancer. (Fassbender, last seen trying to hold that biergarten scene together in “Inglourious Basterds,’’ knows he can dominate the frame by doing very little; he holds back, graciously giving Jarvis full freedom of movement.) “Fish Tank’’ should be seen for what it does well and for what it hints may come, if Andrea Arnold and her audiences are lucky.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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FISH TANK

Written and directed by: Andrea Arnold

Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Rebecca Griffiths

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 123 minutes

Unrated (as R: very stroppy language, nudity and sexual situations involving a minor)

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