Fish TankGreen light“Social realism” might be a term the general movie going populace associate with “snoresville” or “say wha?” but every once in a while a social realist film comes along with broad appeal, minimal arty farty wankerism and an ability to match aching realism with compelling drama.

Director Andrea Arnold’s tensely told British kitchen sink drama, Fish Tank, won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and is an exemplary example of character-based storytelling.

Arnold follows at an intensely personal proximity a wily 15-year-old trouble maker, Mia (Kate Jarvis), who drinks regularly, is in trouble with the law and develops a questionable relationship with her mother’s new beau Connor (Michael Fassbender). The relationship between them consumes much of the film and is a sensitively handled mixture of quasi father/daughter dynamic and uneasy sexual energy.

The actors in Fish Tank chip in top shelf performances. The film heralds a major breakthrough for newcomer Kate Jarvis, who textures Mia with unflinching boldness and bulldozes her way into the audience’s consciousness. Jarvis’s gutsy performance takes a potentially stereotyped character – a renegade, uncontrollable youth in rebellion – and fills it out with layers upon layers of complexity. The subtle details of Jarvis’s acting exist somewhere intangible, between beats of the heart, and it’s a triumph to watch her character slowly grow.

Fish Tank builds its power gradually. A dramatic chunk at the end, which launchs suddenly and unexpectedly, capturing a consequence of Connor and Mia’s relationship, is a squeamish stretch of film but not in a crass or gory sense. It prompts a kind of dramatic plea between the audience and Mia: please, please, don’t let this happen.

A plotline about Mia’s desire to be a dancer provides a vague hint of “you can do it!” underdog inspiration, albeit a billion or two universes removed from Flashdance (1983) or Billy Elliott (2000). Boogies and booze (often in unison) are Mia’s only hobbies, and she longs to become a professional dancer. The audition scene in which she confronts her dream is indicative of Arnold’s approach: bold but understated, balanced by matter-of-fact realism fused with startling emotional gravity that rises like a burst of steam in your face. We feel its effects in a place where out guts and hearts collide.

Only a kooky last minute shot threatens to upset Fish Tank’s ironclad sense of purpose, conviction and realism. It’s only a few seconds long but long enough to smack of a half-mad attempt to crow bar into the running time last minute visual symbolism, the kind that serves as an aphrodisiac for snobby film critic wannabes. Shave those seconds off and you’ve got one intensely focused film.

Fish Tank’s Australian theatrical release date: May 27, 2010.

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