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January 24, 2010

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Hooked by realism

A bit of guilt comes with watching the British teen drama "Fish Tank." Writer-director Andrea Arnold has created something so real and raw, you may come away with a twinge of guilty voyeurism, a sense of peering too closely and impolitely into other people's lives.

Putting real life uncomfortably under the lens seems a specialty for Arnold, an Academy Award winner for her 2004 short film "Wasp," who now makes her follow-up feature film after an impressive debut on 2006's "Red Road," a thriller with a heavy voyeur component itself.

Both of Arnold's feature films won the jury prize, the third-place award, at the Cannes Film Festival. "Fish Tank" is a big step forward, though, a small wonder of social realism that is riveting and harrowing, yet in the end, enormously satisfying.

Arnold made a remarkable find with her teen lead, Katie Jarvis, who had not acted before but proves a natural, at least for the sort of honest intensity the filmmaker needed to anchor the story.

The filmmakers say they approached Jarvis after seeing her arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform.

Whatever volatility Jarvis displayed in that encounter was channeled, and then some, for her role as 15-year-old Mia, a youth in trouble on all fronts, at home, at school, and among the circle of ex-friends that has cast her out as an angry freak.

A teen with dancing aspirations, Mia practices her moves alone in a vacant apartment in the creaky, crumbling housing projects of Essex, east of London.

She wanders the deteriorating old industrial town, picking fights with just about anyone she meets, occasionally turning up at the apartment where she lives and bickers with her single mom (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths).

Mom's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, most recently seen as a British film critic turned spy in "Inglourious Basterds"), becomes both someone new to confront and an intriguing mix of father figure and dream suitor to Mia.

"Fish Tank" is hardly an action film, but the drama unfolds like a train wreck waiting to happen, Arnold taking her characters to the brink and beyond as Mia and Connor test the bounds of appropriate behavior involving a teen no longer a girl, not yet a woman.

Jarvis' Mia is a ferocious, hankering spirit, desperate for positive connections with people, compassionate and empathetic despite her prickly exterior.

She makes some bad choices and learns that adults often are no better than teenagers at doing the right thing. Mia just learns it in a more drastic way than most youths do.

Extreme things happen, yet it all feels genuine, even inevitable, thanks to the devoted, fearless cast and Arnold's attention to detail, which helps "Fish Tank" unfold like actual lives playing out on screen.

Arnold reunites with "Red Road" cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose stark, unadorned images heighten the film's naturalism.

The title is appropriate. Arnold's characters are not fish gasping for breath on a creek bank, an image right out of the film. But they do come off as authentic and unaffected, as true to their nature as fish under glass.


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