“Fish Tank,” a powerful portrait of life in an English public housing project, is told exclusively from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old girl. Sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS), this award-winning film will play at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, May 15.
Director Andrea Arnold uses a hand-held camera to track the daily life of Mia, the tough and lost girl played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis in a tour-de-force performance. “Fish Tank” won 2010 BAFTA Best Director and Most Promising Newcomer awards, as well as tying for a 2009 Jury Prize at Cannes.
The opening shot of “Fish Tank” conveys with precision the state Mia is in even before the audience can identify who she is. Leaning against a wall with her head down and face invisible, she pants like a fish out of water. She could be experiencing an anxiety attack, but the likelihood is that she has been practicing hip-hop dancing in an empty projects apartment.
While the focus remains steadfastly on Mia and her struggles as a fish out of water, the director actually offers us a triptych of a failing family. The mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) was most likely not much older than Mia when she bore Mia and her sister. No father is in the picture.
Joanne medicates herself with alcohol and hungrily seeks out male companionship while neglecting her two daughters. Younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Tyler) is a mouthy brat not yet old enough to understand, as Mia does, how trapped the family is. Mia commands the central panel of the triptych.
During her restless, solitary wanderings, Mia is drawn to a horse tied to a cement block in a vacant lot and tries to free it. The image might seem overly iconic if Ms. Arnold didn’t offer the audience other shots in passing of an urban wasteland, alongside pockets of the natural world it has mostly replaced.
Things seem to be changing when Connor (“Inglourious Basterds” and “Hunger”) enters the household as Joanne’s new boyfriend. Connor develops a kindly interest in Mia and her dancing.
He takes the three on a fishing excursion, giving Mia a piggyback ride and tending to a cut on her foot. Later he lends her his video camera so she can tape her dancing.
Soon, Connor moves into the family’s tiny apartment. Mia, who has appeared so fiercely aimless and stuck, replies to an ad for female dancers. She seeks out a teenaged boy not much older than herself to hang out with. Her mother informs her arrangements are being made for her to attend a live-in school.
Then one night after Joanne passes out, what looked to be a possibly healing father-daughter relationship between Connor and Mia turns sexual. Connor vanishes as fast as a puff of smoke, and a desperate Mia hunts him down, discovering he’s not the man either she or her mother thought. Nor does the dancing audition turn out to be what she expected.
In the end, Mia finds a way to escape from her blind-alley life, at least temporarily. “Fish Tank” ends before the audience finds out how genuine the escape will turn out to be. Instead we are left with a vision of urban life as searing as dystopic sci-fi — plus the hope that this aware young woman will eventually find her way.
“Fish Tank,” 7:30 pm, Saturday, May 15, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards is a frequent contributor to The Times.