Ah the illusive young-girl-coming-of-age movie.

I know, I know… I already put up a Friday Night Netflix today. Oh well, today you get two. I debated bothering with this movie but I guess I have some things to say about it so I might as well do it now while it’s fresh and not wait til next week when, depending on my mood, I’ll probably rather write about Breaking Upward or The Shape of Things. Fuck it, on to Fish Tank!

Basically, the movie is about Mia, a 15 year old girl who secretly wants to be a hip-hop dancer. She’s a total bitch to everybody around her, hostile and violent and duplicitous with her peers, her mother, adults, and her kid sister (who gets the best lines in the movie). Mia is played by Kate Jarvis but using the word “played” does the work a disservice. She embodies this girl. They may as well have picked her up off the street.

Though she is as volatile as they come, Mia earns audience sympathy early on by trying to rescue a seemingly ailing horse.

Part of Mia’s problem is that she’s from a broken home. Her mother is the sort of sad, bitter, and desperately lonely woman that can be a real cunt even while those minute details of expression and action tell the fuller story. She is habitually cruel to her children, makes everything about her, and seems to have no real interest in bettering their situation.

This shot breaks my heart.

The other part is poverty, which the movie captures in painful authenticity. I was raised in a neighborhood like Mia’s, around people like the ones in this movie, and by a mother not so different from the one here. Not everyone watching this film will be able to relate to these characters, much less see past the cruelty and indifference with which they treat each other. And that’s fine. They don’t need to. This movie isn’t for everybody. It may not be for me, either, it made me so angry that I almost stopped watching it.

See, I loves me some Michael Fassbender and it was his involvement (more than the plethora of awards and the positive buzz about the movie) that made me finally sit down with it. I’m not sure if his innate likability and that I am a fan of his are the true source of my frustration at what happens with his character, Connor, who first appears in these girls’ lives like a light in shadow. He’s a nice guy, it seems, sweet to the kids and good to their mum. He ignores their negativity and seems to have limitless patience for them. More than that, it isn’t just an act he puts on to get their mom to put out. He wins them over, and us, before too long.

We start to have the idea that Mia and her mother need is a strong, positive male influence. Mia needs a father and her mother simply needs a good man. This neutral image, putting the two main characters on equal footing suggests the uncertainty of their relationship.

But it does not take long to grow into something a bit more involved, if also at this stage merely sweet and a bit touching.

The trouble is, there’s an immediate and powerful connection  between he and Mia. While I was watching, I resisted the direction this was taking. I thought that Mia simply had no way of conceptualizing a father figure and that her seemingly sexual interest, brought on by her awakening puberty, was simply misplaced and would eventually blossom into something a lot more firm (not to mention appropriate). Unfortunately for Mia, she is a bit naive and Connor is a bit immoral.

Even bits like this seem innocent enough but notice the marked difference between this shot and the others. Now Mia is neither neutral nor physically attached, her interest is detached and Connor is objectified.

Connor seems to take a genuine interest in Mia’s hobby. Her mother and sister are unsupportive, of course, but Connor’s interest is enough to push her into taking on an audition at a place looking for dancers. Finally, even as we have let ourselves hope that Connor has honorable intentions (forgetting all the hints and sign of that probably not being the case), our hope goes all kinds of South. The discomfort of the audience is a mirror held up both to Mia’s embrace of Connor’s advances and his own reflexive horror after the deed is done. He is ashamed, which maybe means he isn’t just some pedophile opportunist but a man who has made a terrible mistake. Of course, that is not supposed to be meant as an exoneration of him. Connor takes advantage of a young girl who is simply looking for love with no real foundation to understand it and temper her hormonal urges, she is utterly a victim.

This shot echoes the one before. Connor is still the object of Mia’s affection but his expression has totally changed. In shame, he rejects her naive assumption that they’ve begun some kind of romance.

The consequences of Mia’s naivete come crushing down on her all at once. The dancing audition is for a strip club and suddenly it makes sense that she was never as good as Connor seemed to think. And then we learn that Connor has a young daughter himself, which pushes Mia into nearly catastrophic stupidity which even for that is understandable and tragic in its process if not quite in its outcome.

Almost at once, Mia stops looking for a way out and makes one of her own which solidifies the very fucked up, painful growth she has been put through. It’s a bittersweet ending with probably more bitter than sweet. We don’t know if Mia is going to be okay out there in the world with her older Pikey boyfriend. We know her sister is being left behind, probably to face her own fucked up challenges the older she gets. And there’s still the mother, who has maybe earned the abandonment she suffers but is a sad sight even when she’d dancing with her daughters.

For Mia, who showed all that determination and heart in her repeated attempts to rescue the Pikeys’ horse, that symbolism may or may not have come full circle. It’s the same boy who told her that “it’s not what you think” when she tried to free the animal, which is an obvious totem for her, and those words echo throughout Mia’s experience. Hopefully by the time she drives off with him, she has learned that enough to have rightly decided that she can trust him. And herself.

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