One of the most fundamental questions that any art form can answer for us is “How do other people live?” What are there lives like; what do they do? What is it like to look through the eyes of another person? Film is particularly suited to providing us these insights and it is in this vein that Fish Tank, written and directed by Andrea Arnold, flows.
Fifteen-year-old Mia lives with her mother and her younger sister in a small apartment. The small apartment is one of a great many in a very large building. One morning, Mia is making tea in the kitchen when her mother’s new boyfriend appears. A complicated and bruising relationship develops, lubricated by a steady stream of alcohol consumed by all parties.
The story is perhaps predictable, and none of the events of the movie are surprising. Mia develops a crush on her mother’s boyfriend, the boyfriend treats her by turns as a child he’s tending and a woman he’s wooing, and the culmination is an inappropriate sexual relationship. While Mia’s mother is jealous of her young and pretty daughter in a generalized way, she doesn’t realize or is blinding herself to the extend of their relationship. The boyfriend turns out to be a married father of one, something Mia discovers after he leaves their lives, crushing both her and her mother.
The cinematography is the gem of this movie. Each shot is framed to show you exactly what Mia is seeing. The camerawork literally allows you to see through her eyes and hear through her ears. When she wakes in the morning, the sun blinds the viewers, the shot is sideways, and all sounds come muffled and faraway. When she is becoming aware of her attraction to her mother’s boyfriend, everything slows and underneath the dialog is a very subtle beat, as if you can hear the blood pounding in her ears with her. Her empathy for those creatures with even less control of their lives than her is brought to the forefront by truly breathtaking framing. Robbie Ryan’s work is nothing less than amazing in this film.
In the end, Fish Tank is a portrait. Like many portraits, one can see pieces of one’s self in it, but not completely. It is one girl’s life and one girl’s story, and any truths gleaned are not universal. They are deeply personal.