Just Right Down the Road, Really
The road is not long and winding at all from Glasgow to easternmost London’s Rainham and Tilbury. Nor is it far from director-writer Andrea Arnold’s promising 2006 début feature Red Road to her second, Fish Tank, as she dips into the same well again, with less happy results.
Beyond two title words and syllables, both have in common a Cannes Jury Prize and the same editor, director of photography and production designer. The two of them are about working class people whose accents at first mystify Americans (for commercial release Red Road was subtitled). They feature rivers of booze, some sex, revenge, and more than touch on separation from, or the loss or threatened loss of, children.
In each, manner comes near to swamping matter. Overused, oddly cropped close-ups, backlighting, angle shots and color scheme -- neon red in the first, pale bleached in the current one -- detract and distract rather than contribute to these tales of empty or one-sided albeit potentially interesting characters.
A reason for the police monitor-surveillance person’s emptiness is revealed late in the earlier film, a mystery of the past clarified, in forgiveness and redemption. Fish Tank is the lesser film, for despite an effective, also late, mother-and-daughter hug, there is little notable development, although the fifteen-turning-sixteen-year-old has her eyes opened when an anticipated audition turns out to be for erotic prancing at a gentlemen’s club.
She is Mia Williams, played surly, obscene and convincingly by Katie Jarvis, two years older than her rôle and without any prior interest in or liking for dance and, discovered on a train platform, no training or experience in acting. She’s “someone real” to project naïve vulnerability beneath a tough patina.
Mia is a loner at school and in the housing project apartment with bickering, hard-drinking, man-hungry mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), feisty little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths, another first-timer), and sad dog Tennents (Syrus). The teen’s secret outlet is dancing to reggae-rap and Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin’” in an empty flat upstairs.
She feels sorry for an incongruous ancient white horse tethered beside an A13 overpass and metal windmill. When she tries to free the animal, two brothers from a parked trailer rough her up, but here she also meets their younger brother Billy (Harry Treadaway), a car junkie with whom there develops as close to a friendship as she can manage. Another newcomer is Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s sexy just-arrived live-in boyfriend, fatherly-kind to the two daughters yet physical in a disturbing way with Mia. Whatever his intentions, this nice guy is a blatant foreshadowing of what is to come in his penchant for such body contact, for drink, and for parading around half-naked.
After what appears the climax and end of Mia’s jealous innocence, to its credit Fish Tank tags on quite a lot as the girl pursues the man and, having seen a reality of life, his family. In an awkward, ugly sequence, tone and direction turn nasty.
Frightened at what nearly happens, she realizes that this has been a childhood’s end. The contretemps with Connor has been obvious from the first, though by the time she turns to Billy -- or allows him to turn to her -- it is she who is the grownup and he the inexperienced partner.
Arnold gave her actors their scenes only shortly before each was filmed, without rehearsals, so that the film-future would be unknown to them and “every moment had to be explored for just what it was and nothing more. A bit like life.” A spontaneous quality is the result but also, unfortunately, a sense that things which matter are going nowhere. Neither film nor life exists solely in the moment that is now.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)