When O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder in 1995, some suggested that the case went south because the LAPD “tried to frame a guilty man.” The same could be said of Fish Tank, a domestic drama from Red Road writer-director Andrea Arnold. Arnold elicits a remarkably natural performance from first-timer Katie Jarvis, who plays a working-class Essex teen living with her ill-tempered mother, her precocious sister, and her mom’s live-in boyfriend, Michael Fassbender. Whenever Fish Tank honestly explores how Jarvis regards Fassbender—as a combination mentor/ersatz father/object of desire—the movie is a small marvel, keenly attuned to what it’s like for a child to become aware of her sexual power. But Arnold can’t rest on realism, and keeps rigging the plot to make Jarvis’ situation sadder and more archetypal.
Throughout Fish Tank, Arnold returns to Jarvis’ infatuation with a painfully symbolic white horse, chained up near her council estate. Arnold also has the TV in Jarvis’ apartment constantly tuned to opulent music videos or “look at my awesome house” shows—all to remind the audience that Jarvis feels bound at chain’s-length from what she really wants. And when Jarvis learns some heartbreaking secrets about Fassbender, her reaction briefly turns Fish Tank into a potboiler suspense movie, as though everyday drama weren’t dramatic enough. Arnold’s “please don’t miss the point” campaign culminates in the movie’s strained final image, which compares Jarvis to an abandoned party balloon, yearning to be untethered.
Fish Tank’s groaningly obvious passages wouldn’t be so aggravating if Arnold didn’t get so much right. The movie is unusually sensitive to the ways young people pick up their cues on how to act like adults, and how awkwardly they practice what they’ve learned. Jarvis looks like a lovely young woman at times, then comes off as small and fragile when she’s riding in the back seat of Fassbender’s car, or when she’s pretending to be asleep while he tucks her into bed. Arnold understands how teenagers act tougher than they actually are, and the way their seduction rituals often involve running around like preschoolers. But Fish Tank’s subplot about Jarvis’ dream to be a street dancer hits these points too hard, overemphasizing Jarvis’ lack of confidence in her own sexuality. In that way, Jarvis is a lot like Arnold: an artist who knows the steps, but doesn’t yet have all the moves.