Mia is 15, all elbows and anger, going at her life in a rundown apartment complex as if it were one long skirmish in British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's exceptionally well-crafted drama, "Fish Tank."
The film features newcomer Katie Jarvis, whom the director first spotted fighting with her boyfriend on a train station platform. The 17-year-old so completely captures the innocence, cynicism and rage of a child of poverty and divorce on the edge of adulthood that it feels as if you are spying on Mia, so achingly real, so tangible does her world seem here.
"Fish Tank" has some of the same strains as "Precious," the dark fable of a pregnant, abused and obese Harlem teenager, which is now on the Oscar circuit, but it doesn't have any of the same operatics. Arnold's style is far more verite, giving us a precisely rendered look at the experience of growing up in a British housing project, with Mia's issues emerging out of neglect and ignorance rather than incest and violence. The brilliant power of the film comes from the gritty reality Arnold creates.
The heart of the story is Mia, forced by circumstance to grow up far too fast. Her 15 years have come with virtually no breaks, in that fish tank of poverty where entire lives are played out swimming in circles. Disappointment piles up like the clutter in the place she lives, decay does the decorating. The fridge is always empty and the couch, and everyone on it, is worn to the bone.
Mia looks like a colt, long-limbed and awkward even inside the loose sweats she wears. So her passion for dancing - a kind of freestyle hip-hop with lots of bump and grind mixed with gangsta poses - comes as a surprise. Tenderness is rare. We see it with an aging horse, chained in a vacant lot, that she wants to set free - a metaphor as telling as it is understated. Mostly, though, Mia is head-butting her way through life - literally and figuratively - alienated from girls her age, dropped out of school and at war with her mom, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), now fading into her late 30s and hoping for that prince to come along, when she's sober enough to still dream.
Arnold, who wrote and directed here, again proves remarkably facile at capturing society's ills in dramatic form, particularly the rocky terrain that fatherless teenage girls face. In "Fish Tank," trouble comes in the form of Joanne's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), all lean muscles and laughter.
The relationship between Connor and Mia develops in many ways that you might expect but also in many more that you wouldn't. Arnold adds new tangles to the web as the story plays out and in the process says much about the prospects for young girls like Mia.
Arnold takes more than a few risks with her characters, willing to let us loathe them as well as love them, depending on the moment, unwilling to make it easy for either us or them.
Though you can feel the heat of her anger, and the pain of her disappointments, it is the shots of Mia alone that linger. In a scene that runs through the film, she has broken into a boarded-up apartment, its windows overlooking the despair below. It's where she dances, headphones dangling, moving slowly to music only she can hear. It says everything about her isolation and her flickering hope. It is moments like these that leave you as desperate as that 15-year-old to fan that flame.