When I first left the theater after seeing Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, I stood on the sidewalk literally gasping for air like a fish thrown onto the curb. Cars sped by on the street, leaving a trail of noise and exhaust, and I stood frozen, not able to separate myself from the movie. Slowly I started to shudder, and a torrent of silent tears poured out of my body. It’s been years since a movie has had such a powerful emotional effect on me, and I wondered if I ever would be able to write about a movie to which I had such an intensely personal response. But as time passed, I realized that the effect the movie had on me wasn’t just about my own personal identification with the subject matter but that Andrea Arnold intentionally wanted the audience to feel the claustrophobic confines of class. She wanted to throw us inside the “fish tank” of the lower working class life in the British council estates (public housing). She wanted us to feel the inner and outer compression that result from the trap of class, and she succeeds to such an extent that the movie wraps its fingers around our throats and never lets go for the entire 123 minutes.
Fish Tank tells the story of Mia, a fifteen year old girl who lives in the council estates on the Essex borderlands. Industrial plants, polluted mudflats, freeway overpasses, and a tapestry of relentless noise are the geography of her life. The story of Mia is not one of dramatic narrative arc or even a traditional coming of age story. It is the story of her life with her single mother, her sister, and mother’s boyfriend Connor, and it is a life that is so tightly compressed by class and gender that there is no “coming of age” allowed since it is clear that Mia was, in a sense, born “grown up.” The movie takes us through a window of Mia’s life where she fights with her mother, has hostile interactions with neighborhood girls, attempts to free a horse, dances in isolation in a an empty apartment, has a complicated relationship with her mother’s boyrfriend Connor, and finally breaks free simply by stepping into a different threshold of her same class.
Growing up in a council estate herself, Andrea Arnold brings an autobiographical-based documentary realism to the movie. Filmed in the tightly framed format of academy ratio, the movie closes in on us and compresses us into Mia’s life with relentless social realism. Everything in Mia’s environment is covered with the soot of a post industrial landscape. Spinning windmills, gutted factories, a few sputtering smokestacks and towers of concrete block apartment buildings comprise the world Mia occupies. And the sound is as claustrophobic as the physical geography – honking horns, the whir and rush of traffic on the overpass, boom boxes blaring from every corner and the relentless whipping of wind off the mudflats. Sound and space close in on us for every single second of this film. We get glimpses of people standing on balconies staring across the polluted waters, children running down corridors littered with garbage and barking dogs, girls sunbathing on dead grass, and senior citizens staring blankly out their windows like so many fish in a tank or animals in a zoo. Mia is one of those fish, and the whole movie works to make us feel the walls of her tank closing in on her.
The film so microscopically focuses on Mia’s environment that it is one of the most claustrophobic movies I’ve ever experienced. Focusing so tightly on this one singular character and her limited relationships (mother, sister, mother’s boyfriend) mimics the claustrophobia of the environment that is Mia’s world. The movie hones in on the specific life of Mia and her very immediate human relations with no room for anything else to get inside. Every single interaction with the people and the environment Mia encounters is fraught with rage, antagonism, and a tightly controlled desperation. A group of girls dancing on a basketball court, a horse tied to a cement block in a field, a strip club looking for dancers, and her own mother – everything in Mia’s life mirrors the claustrophobia of her environment.
The scenes in her apartment are so compressed that it is a miracle they could even maneuver a camera within the space to film them. Whether in a bedroom cluttered with posters, perfume bottles and discarded clothes or a kitchen with counters littered with beer bottles or the narrow confines of a stairwell, the characters are literally on top of each other in each scene. The mise-en-scene in the movie is so real that I can’t even call it mise-en-scene. I can only call it reality, the stuff of life in an apartment in the council estates — a discarded shoe next to a stainless steel mixing bowl, a tea kettle, mix-matched cups, an ashtray on a coffee table. The interesting thing is that while the characters are compressed together in the tight space of the apartment – especially the mother and her daughters – there is such little connection or communication between the family. The mother exists like a menacing specter of female sexuality gone bad from the limits of its class, and her presence in the house is more like an antagonistic haunting than an actual person, yet alone a mother. The mother wears her class all over her body – from her stumbling high heels, to her garish yellow mini dress, to her shoddy hair dye. She obviously is still a child herself and had Mia when she was a child. Never even given a name in the movie, the mother is like the living breathing symbol of the class and gender that are closing in on Mia’s life.
Everything about Mia (played with heartbreaking reality by first-time actress Katie Jarvis, who was discovered by one of Arnold’s crew members while arguing with her boyfriend at a train station) is a reaction against the claustrophobic confines of her class and her gender while also a torrential mix of confusion and contradiction. In Mia, we see that being tightly controlled is the ultimate act of protection, yet we also witness the struggle within herself between yearning for intimacy (which she has never experienced, certainly not through her mother) and the knowledge that self-protection trumps intimacy. We see her coming to awareness of her sexuality while also consciously suppressing her sexual identity as an act of protection and rebellion. Mia’s entire presence is as controlled and clenched as the movie itself. Her neediness and vulnerability are expressed not through tears or self-pity but through compression and bursts of rage. She adopts boyish clothing as a kind of suit of armor, her clenched body stomping through the streets in sweatpants and hoodie. Mia is the perfect embodiment of the tension that resides in young girls who are thrust into a grown up world. The scene with her younger sister sitting in her pink room with her friends, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, while surrounded by stuffed animals and dolls is the quintessential embodiment of the life Mia was born into.
One of the movie’s primary narrative threads is Mia’s love of dancing. Dancing is the thing she does to take her away and allow escape. Interestingly, the one place where she finds freedom is inside an abandoned apartment within the council estates. Mia breaks into the apartment, plugs in her music, and lets go dancing. In between dancing, she guzzles beer from a large plastic bottle and looks through the window of her tank and down at the world she lives in – a sea of public housing and pollution. Her dance moves themselves are completely restrained and stripped of sexuality. When she dances, she clenches her body like a fist, and her moves are so tight and controlled that she allows no room to get inside her. Also, she adopts the dance moves of boys — break dancing. Mia throws her body on the floor as if the act of throwing herself down will itself protect her from being thrown down. But ultimately there is no protection in dancing either. When she sees an advertisement for “Dancers Wanted,” Mia applies and eventually finds herself auditioning in a strip club. She stands on the stage in her sweatpants and hoodie and looks around at a room full of her “mothers” – desperate women dressed and made-up in sex – with their high heel shoes, their lipstick and eyeliner, their mini-dresses, corsets, and g-strings. It is a heartbreaking and enraging moment when we see Mia trapped between the sexual yearning inside her and the reality of her class and gender and the necessity to consciously suppress her sexuality as an act of survival. She storms off the stage and refuses to concede to that image.
It’s a loveless world that Mia lives in, and she adapts to this loveless world like a fish in a tank. Her mother rarely shows her any emotion other than resentful competitiveness. Her attempts at caring consist of trying to place Mia in a “special school” for troubled kids (in other words, by getting rid of her), or by pinching her arm (leaving a huge black bruise) and telling Mia to stop interrupting her party. Mia meets her mother’s boyfriend Connor who is the first person who actually seems like he cares about her, but it’s all a mess of confusion between Mia’s desire for paternal caring and her burgeoning sexuality. At one moment, she allows Connor to make her a cup of tea as an act of caring. At another, Mia watches Connor and her mother have sex through a crack in the bedroom door. The tension between Mia’s desire for paternal caring and her sexual desire plays beautifully in a scene where Mia pretends to be passed out on her mother’s bed and allows Connor to carry her to her own bed and strip her pants off. The whole while, we expect rape, molestation or some kind of trespass, but instead Connor gently tucks Mia into bed and walks out of the room.
Mia and Connor’s relationship between play and sexuality fuels the tension and tightness of the movie. The next morning, Connor takes the three girls (mother and two daughters) on an outing to a pond. Connor leads Mia barefoot into the water, and he catches a fish with his bare hands, an image of childish play and fierce sexuality. The whole while the bruise on Mia’s arm as she enters the water with Connor reminds us that the only relationship that she has to sexuality is through her mother, and specifically through her mother’s boyfriend. Later, Connor bandages Mia’s bare ankle which itself is a scene of nurturing and charged sexuality. Of course, the cut occurred and Mia started bleeding when she entered the wet pond with Connor, another image that is both playful and loaded with sex. The irony is that while Mia rebels against her mother’s overt sexuality, the only access she eventually has to sexuality is through her mother’s boyfriend. When the critical moment finally occurs and Mia and Connor have sex, the scene is utterly devastating, not because it is overtly traumatic or dramatic, but because it is so ordinary with Connor pumping up and down on Mia’s body as Mia clenches her fists on his back.
It is this very ordinariness that makes the movie so relentlessly claustrophobic and devastating. There is no single key moment of violence and trespass, but just the relentless violence of class and gender that keep Mia trapped. While the sex scene with Connor is sad and pathetic, it is utterly real. There is no sense of violation, just the sense that this is just another act (lacking intimacy and trust) in a series of acts that occur in the fish tank of Mia’s life. Likewise, in the scene with the Welsh settlers when Mia tries to free the horse and they catch her, the struggle with her and the young men leads us to expect somekind of horribly violent outcome – rape, beating, theft — , but instead she just runs away unscathed, eventually gets her backpack back, and even takes on one of the young men as her “boyfriend.” The movie is not about the violence or catharsis contained in one singular moment but more about the persistence of what is, and that is why it is so powerfully effective. It never allows us to move on or process. It only allows us to feel the confines of the space of Mia’s life.
As brutally realistic as the movie is, it is not without its heartbreaking poetic moments. A series of scenes that are both poetic yet real allow the impact of Mia’s life to hit us even harder. One of the movie’s poetic tropes is the image of an old white horse chained to a concrete block in a field. Mia is obsessed with the horse and wanting to free it (as she would like to free herself from the literal concrete block she is chained to). In one scene, Mia takes an enormous rock and bangs on the chain, trying the break the horse free, but the chain never breaks. The horse eventually dies chained to the limits of its environment, an image both symbolic and tragically real.
Mia’s relationship with Connor is not only critical in showing the tensions within Mia as a child and as a sexual being, but it also ends up providing commentary on class and a powerfully symbolic moment when Mia has to confront herself and the limits of her class. Not surprisingly, Mia discovers that Connor lives in a house with a wife and daughter and that he is from an entirely different class than her, that he was using Mia and her mother as a “childish” diversion from the comforts of his middle class life. When Mia breaks into Connor’s house, she literally trespasses her class and sees the life she most likely will never have – a comfortable and clean home, a video showing caring loving parents, and Connor’s daughter Keira, a little girl who is truly loved and cared for. When Mia kidnaps Keira, it’s like she is kidnapping herself and confronting both who she is and who she will never be. In another moment that leads us to expect tragedy but instead just shows life, Mia abducts Keira and leads her through the windswept fields of the borderlands. As Keira runs, shedding pieces of her princess dress on barbed wire fence along the way, she eventually comes to the edge of the fields and falls into the turbulent stormy sea. When Keira falls into the raging waters gasping for air, we expect her to drown. (We are told earlier in the film that Mia can’t swim.) Instead, Mia pulls Kaira out of the water and leads her back home. In other words, she pulls herself out of the storming waters that are consuming her, and she sets herself free. It is another poetic moment that reads both as reality and as emotionally laden metaphor.
Setting herself free, however, does not provide a climatic happy ending moment. Setting herself free means that Mia leaves her council estate home and her mother and sister for an undetermined life with the Welsh boy from the trailer by the horse. In a moment of departure and closure, Mia, her sister and her mother dance together to the rap song by Nas “Life’s A Bitch.” With the refrain “Life’s a bitch and then you die” playing over and over again as the three women dance – the mother a perpetual child and her children born into being adults – we can’t help but feel the trap of class close in on us. The utopian bittersweet intimacy of the scene is undermined by the brutality and reality of the song. It should be noted that the use of rap music (a traditionally masculine form of music) shows that class is beyond race while also provides the audio evidence of the hard reality these women and girls live in and the tough veneer they have adopted for their survival. Speaking of tough veneer, as Mia leaves the house for good, her little sister runs out of the house and hugs her, “I hate you.” “I hate you too,” Mia answers back. As I said, this is a world where love can only express itself as rage or hate and which allows no room to allow for the vulnerability of love.
As Mia drives off, one of the last things we see in the movie is a silver heart balloon floating above the towering concrete blocks of the council estates. While it could be read as an intentionally orchestrated (and hokey) poetic moment, the balloon looks and feels accidental, like the cameraman just happened to catch it, this one fleeting glimpse of love bought for $2.99 then cut off from the string and left to float into oblivion. Despite the balloon and the image of Mia driving off with her boyfriend, and despite the rescue of Keira and the other quiet poetic moments in the film, I still left the movie with a suffocating sense of reality more than a contemplative sense of poetry. I left the movie feeling like I never left the movie, and that’s the point. Class sticks. Being stuck inside class is like being stuck inside a fish tank, and you can’t just walk away from it. I realized that all too vividly as I stood outside the movie theater, listened to the traffic, swallowed down my tears, and looked at my own reflection in the window.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.