Sometimes you stumble upon a movie that you didn’t intend to see and it completely takes you by surprise. Back around 2008 to 2010 this would happen to me quite often. I was a regular at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and inhaled all of the classic movies, midnight movies and independent movies I could. It was during that time period that I saw a trailer for the movie Fish Tank and knew I needed to see it. The movie was acclaimed and featured hip-hop dancing which was cool, but it also co-starred an up-and-coming actor named Michael Fassbender (who up to that point I had only seen in Hunger and Inglorious Basterds) who I thought was really exciting to watch. I had a hunch he would be big one day, similar to how I called Avril Lavigne turning into something when I heard the song “Complicated” at a mall McDonalds back in the spring of 2002. I have an ear and eye for talent is what I’m trying to say.
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank tells the story of Mia (played by Katie Jarvis, in a natural performance), a 15-year old girl living in the British housing projects with her boozy mother and misbehaving little sister. Mia wanders aimlessly most days (she’s been kicked out of school and is waiting to start a term at a disciplinary school) and forges an uncomfortable relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (Fassbender) who encourages Mia’s one healthy interest – hip-hop dancing.
Mia is a questionable protagonist. She’s foul mouthed, gets into fights, drinks heavily and does some even more undesirable things as the movie progresses (which I won’t get into because they would be spoilers) but it’s testament to the filmmaking and Katie Jarvis’ performance that you always care about Mia and want her to find happiness in life. Why is it that we as viewers side with questionable protagonists such as Mia? I think it’s because everybody feels like they themselves are a mess sometimes and seeing someone depicted as such on the screen is a way for us to tell ourselves that we’re not alone in that feeling. It’s a shared experience and if Mia can break free and find a better life, we can too. Mia is on a track to nowhere but by the movie’s conclusion there’s hope. Her life might not be saved yet, but what we understand is that she’s a life worth saving. She’s not a bad person (though she does many bad things) because she never had the opportunity afforded to her to be anything but the way she is based on her family life and surroundings.