If there’s a genre that the British do better than Americans, it’s the urban realist genre. The strength of the Brits lies in their willingness to let characters and situations be messy, imperfect, flawed, and distressed without condemnation or judgement. By focusing on the characters, society’s imperfections come through on the edges of the film instead of being the entire point of the movie.
Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank is a coming of age movie set in an East London public housing project. Rebellious 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives with her single early-30s mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). As the movie opens, Mia is on a rampage for a falling out with her best friend, getting into a fight with her friend’s friends. She sets out to free a horse chained in an abandoned lot turned trailer park, and gets into a fight with her sister and mother before heading out to rehearse break dancing in an empty apartment. Mia’s a teenager going through teenage shit exacerbated by poverty and a mother possessing as little control as Mia. It’s when Joanne introduces her new hot-as-hell boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender), that Mia responds to a different, paternal, energy with whom she isn’t engaged in mortal combat.
Fish Tank is a movie of flaws; every character makes bad decisions fully based in their history, their economic situation, and some some form of misplaced genuine emotion. If the characters aren’t ideals, they’re recognizable figures based in their own reality. Writer-Director Andrea Arnold isn’t here to bury these characters through their foibles, but she isn’t here to redeem them either; similarly, she also isn’t intending to make a film about poverty and how it effects people’s decisions and manipulations. The one exception is Conor whose late film reveal almost destroys the integrity of the movie, but Jarvis and Fassbender are such powerhouses that their raw emotion patches over any of the script’s flaws. By setting a coming of age story against urban realism and packing it with three firebrands (Jarvis, Wareing and Fassbender), Fish Tank becomes a standout in the modern teen angst drama genre.