Arnold has a keen eye for the border between danger and fulfilment when it comes to sexual feelings, and here she trains that eye on one vulnerable but strong adolescent teenage girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who you can’t help but feel for and understand – even after we watch her call a friend’s dad a ‘cunt’ and headbutt another girl so that the blood pours down her face. And that’s just the first five minutes.
Mia lives in a flat in Essex, near the Thames estuary, with her mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffith). Mia calls her little sis ‘fuck face’ and little sis calls her ‘cunt face’ back. The TV blares out reality shows and makeover programmes. Outside, Arnold’s camera sucks up the territory on which she films; flats, busy roads, flyovers, scraps of land and suburban shop parades all lend a strong sense of place without any sense of gawking or romanticising. This is Mia’s world and there it is: it can sometimes look ugly, sometimes look beautiful. Arnold and DoP Robbie Ryan shoot in the unusual 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so the screen is almost square, but ‘Fish Tank’ feels more like a series of personal Polaroids than TV, the glare of the sun often dancing across the lens in the manner of home snapshots.
Nothing about all this feels miserable. It helps that Arnold tells her tale at the height of summer so that the sun is always shining. It also helps that Arnold’s way of presenting Mia to us is to stay close to her at all times, to show us her world from her point of view. Crucially, we’re there, alone with Mia, when she regularly decamps to an empty flat and practices her hip hop dance moves. We know there’s more to Mia than antagonism and kneejerk violence and we’re curious about what’s going on in this girl’s head.
We’re there, too, when her mum brings home a man, Connor (Michael Fassbender), who is soon living with them, doing the washing-up with his top off and taking them for a drive. Mia’s smiles show that she likes him, while he pays her more attention than anyone else in her life, praising her dance moves, giving her a piggyback, even tucking her up in bed when she pretends to be asleep. Their relationship takes unusual, even alarming turns, but always Arnold avoids obvious judgements, obvious explanations. Hers is an intimate drama of grey areas and all the better and more thoughtful – and thought-provoking – for it.