Cannes 2009 Review: Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank
by Alex Billington
May 25, 2009
This was one of the first films to kick off the festival, and the very last film I saw. Andrea Arnold's directing debut was in 2007 with the Scottish indie film Red Road and she returns to Cannes this year with her follow up Fish Tank. That title is just as obscure this time as well, and doesn't have much to do with the actual story, but that doesn't mean she's unable to still give us a glimpse at her true talent as an auteur and filmmaker. In a very well-made coming-of-age drama about a 15-year-old girl living in slum-like conditions in England, Arnold gives us, at least, one of the best performances of the year, on top of a great story.
The simplest way to described Fish Tank is with a simple synopsis, to steer clear of spoilers. Mia (played by newcomer Katie Jarvis) lives with her mom and younger sister and doesn't have any friends, or at least none that she likes. When her mum (Kierston Wareing) brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), everything changes for her. It's not the polished, happy-go-lucky kind of story you'd see in America, but it's a gritty look at a girl who has few passions in life and is living day-to-day just to get by. So when Connor steps into her life, it sparks a bit of joy inside of her and gives her a new sense of direction, or so we think.
As has been the trend at Cannes this year, Fish Tank isn't perfect, it has some flaws, but it's one of the strongest features at the festival. What works so damn well is the gritty, realistic way it's presented, and above all else, Katie Jarvis' riveting performance. If Arnold hadn't had discovered her, this wouldn't have gone as far as it did, and Fish Tank owes a lot of its own success to Jarvis. On the same end, it's a great story that doesn't have all the bells and whistles of a Hollywood coming-of-age story, but doesn't necessarily need them, and Arnold knows that. She just presents it all as is and lets the audience get wrapped up in it.
While most of the story moves along quite well, there are a few unnecessary elements that act as speed bumps along the way. For example, near to the end, Mia makes an incredibly irrational decision on the fly, but that choice really doesn't do anything for her, good or bad. It's actually such a bad choice (you'll know what I'm talking about once you see the film) that it should have had a much larger impact on her than it does and it jerks the audience around needlessly. These are the kind of flaws I found Fish Tank - minor infractions that pull the audience out of the story for no real reason than to, potentially, add more drama.
Overall, Fish Tank is a superb sophomore effort from Andrea Arnold. Katie Jarvis will definitely get some additional acclaim and I expect most moviegoers will take a liking to the story as well. It's not my favorite feature of the fest, by any means, but I'm glad I had the chance to catch it. It's definitely worth seeking out.
Cannes Rating: 8 out of 10