“Fish Tank”: A continuous state of poetic immersion

Fish Tank is a film so focused that, despite its unspoken ambiguity, remains undoubtably clear, concise, and advancing. We deep dive into the mind and mischief of Mia, as the details that surround her life are uncovered — informing who and why she is.

15, fragile, aggressive, and biting, Mia epitomizes the adolescent mindset of just wanting to be seen, loved, and accepted; however, with the case of Mia, she exists in damaging circumstances. Living with her alcoholic, neglectful mother, Joanne, and younger sister, Tyler, in a British public housing unit that is, more specifically, continuously operating as a party-center for Joanne and her friends, or, bed chamber for Joanne and her latest male companion. Most recently, that man is Conner, a ‘good’ guy who is, perhaps, too good for Joanne? That is certainly the message on Mia’s face as she watches him, critically staring — wanting and waiting for him to be like the rest.

One morning, after Mia comes downstairs to the kitchen, she see’s her mother (who delivers nothing but cruel, spiting verbal abuses) and Conner sitting at the breakfast table. Joanne promptly asks Conner if he’s ready to leave and Tyler, who stands directly across from them in the kitchen, begins to fuss about the immediate, brutal exit. Joanne then reveals that she and Conner had plans to drive to the country — alone. Noticing the girls reaction, Conner suggests that they all go together and Tyler is elated by the decision — a chance to finally get out of the house! Mia seems slightly interested, but after Joanne sneers and says that Mia “won’t come”, Mia commits to the escapade with renewed, eager interest.

Their ‘drive to the country’, as it turns out, is actually a drive down the highway with a seemingly improvised off-road detour through unruly shrubbery by a lake. Arguably unscenic, this change in scenery is, through the eyes of the car-less family, a trip to Disney Land. They can play their personal music in their own, private car, roll their windows down, feel the breeze, and experience nature exclusively with and for themselves. A welcomed treat.

The three girls follow Conner’s lead to a small lake where he invites them to walk in the river with him. Joanne and Tyler back away, disgusted by the suggestion, while Mia moves forward and into the river… despite not being able to swim. Both scared and ready to triumph over the new experience, Mia courageously moves forward.. under Conner’s watchful eye. Within minutes, Mia feels a fish beat against her leg in an unpredicted frenzy as Conner offers the panicked and pained Mia calm. He then captures the fish with his bare, manly hands, protecting her, in a way. He takes the fish and directs her to shore, bandaging up her foot (which was cut by a harsh river stone) and laying the fish on the ground — barely able to breathe.

After Conner finishes bandaging up Mia’s foot, he invites her to hop on his back so he can carry her to the car — as to not advance the wound. Joanne and Tyler walk ahead as Mia accepts the invitation. This moment when Conner carries Mia to safety is one experienced in slow motion, where we hear only his breath… a mirrored experience from an earlier moment in the film when Conner carried a drunken Mia from her mothers bedroom to her small, twin sized bed. With great care, Conner took off her shoes, pants, and tucked her into bed with meant, tender, seemingly un-explicit care. We see this motif later in the film — as this theme of closeness, care, and connection continues.

Later on, while the children are in the house, Conner and Joanne have sex in Joanne’s bedroom, which is covered in pink and adorned with butterfly’s. Overtly childish, Joanne’s bedroom seems pulled back in time, mirroring the young mother who turned into an adult too soon, and now, often acts like a brat, older sister who hasn’t grown up yet than a full parent. Mia, hearing the encounter, curiously and quietly leaves her room and see’s Conner fucking her mother through the slightly cracked door. She watches Conner, interested. Conner looks up, and Mia tucks back into the shadow — he doesn’t know she’s there, but does he? It happens again and he continues to fuck Joanne, this time not pausing. He seems to be enjoying the experience with her mother, which makes Mia mad. She storms back to her room and slams the door. She slams it again. And again. And again and again until we black out to the next scene.

Downstairs, the family dog eats the fish Conner has captured. Once on the countertop and now on the floor, the dead fish’s guts become more, and more, exposed as the dog digs and eats. The once barely alive, taking in its last bits of its 02, fish has been cut open, eaten alive. A foreshadow of what’s to come for Mia?

Arnold’s films are often embed with symbolism from the natural and urban world, and Fish Tank is no different. In addition to the fish symbolism, there is also that of an aged, silver horse which Mia finds chained to a cinder block in a vacant lot — beautiful, alone, and seemingly forgotten. This open, concrete covered space near the highway and incoming traffic, with several campers parked nearby as well, is no deterrence for Mia’s plot: to steal, or ‘save’, the lonely creature. Acting on impulse, Mia tries to break the lock with a nearby stone, determined. It is unclear exactly what she plans to do with the horse, but obvious that Mia is acting on pure emotion, response. The horse cannot stay chained to this stone, unfree.

A late adolescent boy emerges, angered, and runs toward Mia — realizing her intentions. Mia attempts to ‘save’ the horse through the last possible second, and then when she realizes it’s too late, swiftly escapes by the skin of her teeth… but doesn’t forget. Later in the film, Mia returns to free the aged, neglected horse; however, this time she is caught, physically beaten by the boys, and quickly escapes before her full punishment can be enacted — leaving her bag, CD’s, and the horse behind.

And now that the CD’s have been mentioned… often in abusive homes (workplaces and communities too, any setting), individuals gravitate towards a personal hobby, activity, or special interest to serve as an anchor for their individuality/personal escape — something they can control. And for Mia, much like Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook, her anchor is dance. Whether Mia is watching Ashanti videos in the kitchen and practicing simple steps, or playing CD’s in her portable player while break dancing in an empty apartment, it is clear that this is something Mia wants to become good at. Unlike her mother, Conner notices that passion and recognizes she could improve with proper support. While encouraging her to attend a local audition, Conner lends her his camera — so she can record her dancing for an upcoming submission. “You dance like you’re black”, Conner says while Mia moves to the choreography displayed on their small, box TV. She sends a look of offense (as everything anyone says to her is meant to be mean) until Conner follows up and says “that’s a compliment.”

Mia then tests her ability to use the camcorder while Conner undresses from his work clothes. He pauses, recognizing she’s recording him change, but continues. It doesn’t feel directly suggestive, but you know it is. Mia later records her choreography with the Sony handicam and, while reviewing, can’t help but rewatch his part of the tape.

Late one night, Mia comes home to a casually poised, drunken Conner sitting on the couch. Conner asks for an update on Mia’s dance audition, then follows up with a comment on how things have been ‘weird’ with them lately… an odd thing to say to your girlfriends daughter. She deflects the comment, but eventually accepts his request to see her audition dance — for the sake of performance anxiety. “If you can’t perform for someone you’re comfortable with, then how will you perform for strangers?” He asks. With a sultry, bright, golden streetlight seeping in through the window, Mia performs her hip hop dance routine for Conner, who drinks straight from the bottle while watching her. She finishes her dance and Conner asks her to sit down next to him. When she does, he gestures for her to come closer, and closer… onto his lap. She hesitantly obliges while he continues to compliment her dance, her choreography, her. She leans into him and he gently wraps his arms around her while stroking her hair, holding her. Mia turns to look at him and they hold a gaze until… they kiss. The scene progresses until Conner is on top of her and takes off Mia’s pants. At this point, she is in a state of shock from the experience, as if she’s fallen into a body of frost-bitten water and is in a state of hypothermia. He continues, and they have sex.

While ‘making love’, Conner comments on the size of his dick, asking (while sounding like he’s telling) Mia if it’s bigger, and better, than her other older lover (who’s 19 to her 15, while he’s 35 to her 15). She agrees it is, and he comments on how she’s a dirty girl — which increases his desire. The experience is mutual, though devastatingly inappropriate, and after they both cum, he gets off of her, and comments on how inappropriate that just was. Mia sits there, confused. Conner then remarks on how they can’t speak of this experience to anyone, and Mia, diffusing, responds ‘yeah, duh.’ They hear a noise from upstairs, movement, and both silently panic. Conner concludes their conversation and goes upstairs to bed with Joanne, leaving Mia alone. Then the next day, Conner breaks up with Joanne and leaves — seemingly for good.

Mia cannot accept this and, while her mother lays on the floor emotionally taken and crying, resorts to action and begins to investigate. She steals her mom’s phone and calls Conner, repeatedly, looking for answers. While walking to Conner’s workplace, where she’s been before, and continuously calling his personal cell (which repeatedly hits voicemail), Mia see’s her first ‘older boy’ walking along the highway. He asks her if she wants to hangout later and she denies him, saying “I’ve got some personal shit to deal with.”

After more ignored cell phone calls, she calls his employer only to find out that Conner won’t be back till Friday. Mia groans in frustration, unable to wait or accept delay.

Somehow, Mia finds the address of Conner’s home, and proceeds to walk many miles like Elizabeth Bennet through the fields of England in Pride and Prejudice, eventually showing up at Conner’s front doorstep — banging on the door. With an overblown, shocked, and almost fearful reaction to Mia’s presence, Conner rushes out of the house, shuts the door, and offers to drive Mia to the train station — saying that they will talk later. Do we believe him?

The two sit in the car, both listening to their weighty internal monologues — a loud sort of silence. Mia asks why he left and Conner responds “you know why, you’re 15.” Without hesitation, Mia states “what does it matter if you like someone.” Conner stares at her, mad, interested, and unable to respond.

Conner drops Mia off at the train station, saying, again, that they will talk later. Why didn’t they talk now? Mia leaves the car and briefly waits at the station, then, just as her train pulls in, turns around and walks back towards Conner’s house. She wants to talk now.

Entering Conner’s gated, quaint, little community once again, she knocks on the door — to no response. Unable to take no for an answer, she hops over the fence and tries to open the back door — it’s locked. Mia scours the territory and spots a window she can break into, and does. At first, the home appears to be a bachelor pad: a minimal, classic, tan interior with a single chair placed directly in front of the TV. After a minute, Mia spots a Sony handicam, the very one he let her borrow. She opens it, and goes through the footage only to find something deeply, terribly, and horribly unexpected… it’s a young girl dressed as a princess, in pink, next to a woman she calls mommy and a man behind the camera she calls daddy. Mia is shaking, she can’t believe it, but she can. Suddenly she looks around the room and spots what her eyes refused to see: a purple, butterfly zip-up jacket, hair clips, toys. It’s all so clear now. She’s drowning in a reality she wasn’t expecting. Suddenly she hears the FAMILY approaching, not just Conner, as she had planned, but a FAMILY. She quickly gets her shit together and runs through the kitchen, yanking open the door with shaky hands, BOLTING for the fence. A rickety camera charts her journey as she climbs over a perfect, clean, white border. Pausing mid-motion, Mia gives the house an intense, photographic stare before jumping into the shrubbery, post-suburban. Landing in the wilderness, Mia walks behind the neatly composed, contained, perfect houses — a wild woman outside of the middle class.

Heading for the exit, but still full of curiosity and shock from her latest discovery, Mia walks out of the bushes, through the community entrance, and back towards the family home… just one last time. In the distance, she sees Conner and his kind wife taking groceries out of the car. Looking like a tiny spec in the distance, Conner calls out to his young daughter, Kira, and then, instantaneously, the daughter is right before Mia’s eyes — in the flesh. Kira scooters along, unfazed by Mia’s presence/extroverted stares, and promptly pedals back to the house. She scoots down the block a second time and passes Mia. On the third go-round, Mia stops Kira’s scooting, calling “Kira, Kira!” She stops, following Mia’s redirection into the woods without question and then, a few moments later, realizes that this scenario isn’t good. Kira screams beneath Mia’s quickly suppressing hand as they go deeper into the woods. A full kidnapping.

It is unclear where Mia is taking Kira but, unlike the silver horse, she has succeeded — in taking her, ‘saving’ her, punishing Conner. Absent of an endgame or next steps, Mia becomes outwardly annoyed with the refined art of dragging a whiney toddler through the dirt, mud, and scraggly branches — a rough, untamed terrain bad enough on its own. Kira then breaks free of this unending gesture, that of Mia’s grasp, and books it down the beach. With Mia cruelly shouting and running behind Kira, she wimpily grabs and throws stones at Mia — like the hungry, pouty toddler she is. Acting like a bratty older sister (or her mom), Mia grabs a large piece of driftwood and hits it in her palm, like a bat, heading for Kira, who continues to run til she’s hit the edge of land and sea. A scuttle ensues and, as expected, Kira falls into the water. There is a great, mighty pause and panic, a centered attention on the waters stillness, until finally Kira breaks the surface. She attempts to swim, but is unable. Mia takes the driftwood stick and extends it to Kira, who lays both her hands on it as she is pulled to shore. They mutually hug each other, both happy to be alive. Kira promptly makes ‘brrr’ing sounds, followed by Mia asking, in a consoling tone, “cold?” Kira nods her head to confirm and the girls go off once again.

Unexpectedly, as evening begins to fall, Mia returns Kira to her home. Walking Kira to the same spot where she initially plucked her up, Mia nods and says “go.” Disbelievingly, Kira glares at Mia, looking back to make sure she isn’t playing a trick, then bolts for home.

Thinking the days drama is over, Mia walks along the highway before hearing a speeding car charging through the dead of night… it’s Conner’s. Mia quickly charges into the neighboring woods, with Conner’s vehicle coming up fast behind her. She breaks through the shrubbery under the beaming light of his now parked car as he races out of the vehicle, door open, and runs after her. Running like a cheetah, her long limbs in full extension, Mia’s athleticism is no match for Conner’s rage as he meets her pace, grabs her arm, and wrings her back. With fearful anticipation, we question how far Conner will go to express his anger and then, with an almost parental edge to his punishment, he slaps Mia right across her face. He’s raging, but immediately regrets the act. Mia falls to the ground under the moon and car light, surrounded by a setting similar to their ‘country venture’ not too long ago… He walks away, leaving her. She begins to cry, and from her POV, we see Conner walking away from her, stopping, realizing what he’s done, and then slowly turning around to walk back towards her — his head down. We do not see the conversation that unfolds, which is equally frustrating and satisfying.

We finish the film with Mia packing up her belongings and ‘saving herself’ (as she attempted with others), leaving her abusive home, her fish tank, her chain and cinderblock, to live fully as herself — and not under someone else’s constant punishment for existing. It’s a freeing finish to the film, though sad as she leaves her younger sister behind — staring at her big sis through the rear windshield.

Many films have tackled inappropriate age gap relationships, power dynamics, and the psychologies and circumstances that, perhaps, lead to these impressionable experiences, but little have so honestly revealed how it unfolds like Fish Tank. The fact that these actors performed in this feature without a full script or story outline, and simply lived in each experience as they were directed — absent of premeditation, prediction, or lead — made this film all the more real. The unfolding of events felt pure, lived in, and unperformed, creating an almost innocent, logical, and natural development of behavior we know is inherently wrong. Not only is Fish Tank an example of excellent filmmaking, visual aesthetics, and storytelling, it is also a lesson in understanding how young people find comfort in attention, in how restoring it all seems, and how, in the moment/experience, everything is not as clear as a passage on paper. You often don’t know what is happening until it has happened. It’s also a lesson in how mature people allow themselves (and provide mental graces) to act for their short-term desires, as opposed to long term logic and consideration for other peoples emotional, developmental, and social place in life. It’s a brilliant, seamlessly-made arthouse film and frankly a social requirement of a moving picture that everyone should witness and experience. Beyond conversations of craft, this story offers continued discussion on relationships, family, class, and circumstance. A piece of visually poetic realism that is gripping, honest, and felt. This is how it happens.

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A fiercely femme retrospective survey of cinema for a new audience. Yeah, it’s good, but what’s the takeaway?

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Nina's Film Notes

Nina's Film Notes

A fiercely femme retrospective survey of cinema for a new audience. Yeah, it’s good, but what’s the takeaway?

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