Fish Tank

Fish Tank

Mia is the epitome of the “troubled teen,” in this case a British troubled teen. She is 15 years old and lives in a rundown neighborhood in East London on a council estate (public housing—kind of like “the projects” in the U.S.). She has either dropped out of school or generally just doesn’t bother to go. (Some effort is made later to enroll her in some special school, like for delinquents I guess, but she simply disappears from home until the social worker who is setting it up leaves, and that’s the end of that.)

I was quite impressed with the way the actress (Katie Jarvis) captures just the right look for that kind of kid—the slouching poor posture, the permanent angry scowl letting the world know she won’t take shit from anyone, etc.

Well, Jarvis may or may not be a terrific actress, but this performance constitutes little evidence on the question because, as I read later, she’s basically playing herself. One of the people responsible for casting the film happened to observe her arguing loudly with a boyfriend in a railway station in East London, and recognized that she was just what they had in mind for Mia. So even though she had zero acting experience, they cast her in the lead role of this movie.

Mia has no significant friendships, no deep, healthy connections with relatives or anyone else. She seems to have nothing positive in her life, and to lack the imagination and initiative to do much to change that, except perhaps that she has an interest in dancing. She often practices dancing, alone, and plans to try out for some kind of dancing job she sees advertised on a bulletin board. That’s about the extent of her dreams.

It’s that modern sort of dancing where she isn’t dancing with a partner or even getting lost in moving to the music and just kind of dancing for herself, but is posturing as if for a camera, like I suppose she has learned from music videos. So there’s a lot of that posing with a defiant look on her face with her arms crossed, and making various gang-style hand gestures and all that.

I of course hadn’t the foggiest notion of whether she was dancing well or poorly, but in reading about the film afterward I gathered that she’s not very good at this, at least not to where she would have any realistic chance of doing it on some serious, professional level. So this is certainly not some kind of heartwarming diamond-in-the-rough Flashdance tale about a girl rising above her environment due to great undiscovered dancing talent. She’s pretty much a zero across the board.

Mia lives with her mother Joanne and her little sister Tyler (about 10 or 11 I’d guess). Tyler is basically a miniature version of Mia—just another angry, bitchy, unpleasant kid. The two of them regularly bicker about such matters as which of them is a fuckface and which is a cuntface.

Joanne looks like she probably wasn’t much older when she had Mia than Mia is now. (I don’t think her age is mentioned, but the actress who plays her—Kierston Wareing, whom I liked a lot in It’s a Free World—was about 32 or 33 when the film was made.) She has little if anything in the way of parenting skills, and seems completely untroubled by that since she’s pretty much indifferent to her kids anyway.

Joanne is the kind of person who decided early on—consciously or not—that she was going to adjust her life as little as possible when she became a parent, and would pretty much live the way she would have lived if she’d never had kids. She’s a “life of the party” type who lives for alcohol-based socializing and sport fucking.

She’s also hotter than her teenage daughter. Not that Mia doesn’t have potential, but it’s as if she goes out of her way to look as drab and asexual as possible. Looking pleasing to men is a significant component of the lifestyle Joanne has chosen; Mia seems determined to never please anyone.

It’s the kind of family where you have to figure it is almost certain that Mia will end up like Joanne—at best—and Tyler will then end up like Mia. A sad, hopeless dynamic.

Then into the life of this dysfunctional trio comes Conor.

Conor starts as just the latest guy Joanne brings home for sex, and then becomes something of a boyfriend of hers, hanging around the place regularly even if he hasn’t formally moved in. He seems to be of a modestly higher class, a bit more stable, a bit more together than her, but there’s not all that much of a gap between them to where they aren’t compatible. Their relationship, though, such as it is, is based almost entirely on partying and sex, with only minimal amounts of any other elements of conventional dating.

Conor quickly takes an interest in Mia, which gives rise to perhaps the most interesting exercise of the film, which is to try to better understand the nature of this interest.

Almost certainly there is a sexual edge to it, though there are also times he fulfills more the role of a father or of a friend.

Mia is initially hostile toward him—because she is an angry miserable person who is hostile toward everyone—and retains at least some of that hostility throughout. But to a limited extent, in some ways, she is receptive to him and shows a warmer side of herself. We learn, for instance, that she is physically capable of smiling.

Just as his interest in her seems to have different facets, her interest in him does as well. She at times responds to his paternal side, the way he compliments her and encourages her to believe in herself, but she also clearly develops an attraction to him. She films him getting dressed (he not only tolerates this but struts a bit, clearly appreciating the attention). She peeks in at him and Joanne having sex and is upset by it, presumably in a jealous sort of way.

So is he simply a “predator,” as people say nowadays? Is everything else he says and does—the father-type things, the friend-type things, his maintaining a relationship with Joanne, his more or less moving in, etc.—strategic and insincere, just means to the end of putting himself in a position to get sex from Mia? Are we misreading him and jumping to conclusions based on the current furor and paranoia about underage sex; might he have no sexual interest in her or only a superficial sexual attraction to her that he has no intention of acting on?

Things between Conor and Mia move—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Conor moves things—in an increasingly physical or sexual direction. More than once he watches her dance (in a way that I suppose could pass for sensual). At one point he even playfully pulls her onto his lap and spanks her.

Joanne, by the way, isn’t the slightest bit aware of any of this, or on guard against it. One senses that if she found out Conor was having sex with Mia or trying to, she either would shrug it off as no big deal, or if she did react with outrage, it wouldn’t be because she perceives her daughter as a victim but because she perceives her as a rival.

Ultimately things do get sexual, and Conor apparently is spooked and splits—or maybe he just got as much as he wanted and doesn’t care to try for more—and it’s actually Mia who gets stuck on him and doesn’t want to let him get away.

I don’t know that there is any definite answer, by the way, as far as to what extent Conor is some sort of premeditating pedophile; probably it’s intentionally left open to speculation. I suppose my guess would be something like this: There’s sincerity in all of his behavior—the father-type, friend-type, and lover-type behavior. He’s genuinely interested in Mia on all these levels. Even if he’s not consciously, intentionally trying to manipulate Mia into a sexual situation, he certainly toys with the idea, likes the idea, doesn’t set appropriate boundaries, and is willing at the very least to go up to the line of having sex with her. And then when he is drunk and horny and things come together to create an opportunity, he no longer can resist the temptation.

Mia stalks Conor to his home, where it turns out he has a wife and daughter. At least I think it’s his wife the way they interact, though maybe it’s just another girlfriend who has a daughter. If it’s his wife, I’m puzzled how he could have stayed with Joanne for an extended period. It’s not like he was only away from home for brief times here and there so he could cheat on his wife; he was virtually living with Joanne. So maybe he separated from his wife and now has gotten back with her. Or, again, maybe it’s another girlfriend. Either way, I’m not sure if the little girl (maybe 6 years old?) is his biological child or not.

Anyway, Mia breaks into his house when no one is home to do some random vandalism. She sees photos and briefly watches video of Conor, the woman, and especially the little girl, and is agitated by them. She then lurks outside the house when they return home, and at the first opportunity she snatches the little girl and makes off with her.

It seems to be very much an impulsive thing; there’s no indication she has much of a plan as far as what she intends to do with the child.

Still, why does she take the girl? Here again I think we are left to speculate. Two possibilities immediately came to my mind, with a third possibility being that her motive was a confused combination of the two.

One—and this is where my mind went first—she’s trying to save the child from him. She realizes now that she has been victimized by a pedophile, that they didn’t just come together as some sort of equal lovers, and thus realizes that any child within his reach is at risk. Perhaps something about the way he interacts with the little girl in the video footage she watches feels ominously sexual to her. So she feels an urgency to get this child away from him immediately.

(By the way, are there any indications—outside of Mia’s mind—that Conor indeed may have a sexual interest in much younger children rather than just a near-adult like Mia? One of the scenes that most struck me along these lines is quite subtle. It’s just a few seconds, and it occurs off camera. I don’t remember if the scene is of Mia watching TV or interacting with her mother or what, but in the background you faintly hear an exchange between Conor and Tyler. This is one of those movies where the characters speak with heavy accents, and thus even though it’s in English I missed or had to guess at maybe 15%-20% of the dialogue, and it’s even tougher when the people speaking are off camera. But it sounded like Tyler was impatiently asking how much longer Conor was going to be in the bathroom because she needed to take a shower or go to the bathroom or something, and Conor responds in a tone of mild annoyance with something like “Don’t worry, I’m not going to look,” like encouraging her just to come in and do what she needs to do and not act like it’s a big deal that she has to be all private about. That was a creepy moment to me.)

Two, she’s still angry with Conor over dumping her, and she’s angry at life in general over the fact that she has been deprived of experiencing the sort of conventional happy family life that she sees portrayed in the photos and video of him and the woman and child. She wasn’t upset at the video and such because she thought he might harm the little girl; she was upset because she was jealous that she never had an intact family, never had a father, and never got to even have Conor for a pseudo-father the way it looked for a time like might happen. Her taking the girl away, like the vandalism, is just a random, impulsive act to hurt him because she’s hurting. Let him panic, let him be scared that someone has kidnapped his child or she has run off somewhere.

I wouldn’t rank Fish Tank near the top of the movies I’ve written about, but it held my interest fairly well, and I perceived it as a thoughtful, skillfully done film. It’s a sad, effective story of a damaged person, and how even someone who finally adds a little positive energy to her life ends up—intentionally or not—damaging her still more.

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