Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Director: Andrea Arnold
Four years ago, Andrea Arnold announced her arrival as an international auteur with Red Road, at once a contemplative thriller examining alienated lives under surveillance cameras, and a mesmerising piece complete with dream-like sequences of what appeared to be the most visually unappealing landscapes in Britain.
With Fish Tank, which won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival last year as Red Road did in 2006, the British director delivers an even more potent mix of these two very different cinematic strands.
Centred on a teenage woman's tortuous rite of passage in Britain's dead-end badlands, Fish Tank certainly reads like Ken Loach-esque material. Arnold's ingenuity lies in the way she weaves in (with the help of her cinematographer Robbie Ryan) stunningly picturesque images amid the social malaise.
In Fish Tank, Arnold's statement of intent comes pretty early on. The opening sequence sees 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, above right) marching through her neighbourhood, a human firebrand bristling with fury. As the teenager criss-crosses her way through the desolate wastelands of Essex - an area dotted with vandalised apartment blocks and empty, debris-strewn lots - she clashes with a gang of scantily-clad girls practising flirtatious hip hop dance moves, head-butting one in the process.
Moving on, she eventually ends up in a dump next to a motorway, where she sees a shackled horse. Just as the confrontation with her peers illustrates her rejection of oafish femininity - something she already has to contend with at home in the shape of her boozing, woman-child mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and her scarily foul-mouthed younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) - her attempts to free the animal reveal a rebel seeking liberation from the mundane lifestyles around her. For Mia, salvation lies only in solitude: as she practises her urban dance moves in a deserted top-floor flat in an empty apartment block, she finds her own self-worth and dreams of a better future. And it's her obsession with her art that draws her close to Connor (Michael Fassbender), the man her mother brings in to live with the family.
He is gentle in demeanour and generous in spirit, encouraging Mia in her endeavours, to the length of actually lending her a video camera so she can record her routines for future auditions.
The intrusion of Connor's middle-class masculinity into what is essentially a feminine universe soon drives the already brittle relationships into freefall.
Hardly surprisingly, the father-daughter relationship between Mia and Connor soon descends into darker territory, leading to revelations that expose the exploitative class-driven schisms of British society and the unravelling of the lives of both mother and daughter.
While Arnold's reimagination of Mia's Essex drives Fish Tank - never has the county's suburban wastelands been made to look so poetic on film - the most riveting element of it all is Jarvis' barnstorming performance.
A first-time actor who Arnold discovered while she was having a massive row with her boyfriend on a railway station platform, the 18-year-old is much more than just playing her own teenage self. It's a nuanced turn that lays bare the confusion and the yearning for respect and recognition bubbling underneath Mia's angst-ridden coil.
Combined with Arnold's fantastic mise-en-scene, Jarvis' contribution is key to what is one of the best British films to have emerged in the past year.
Fish Tank opens today