Remember being 15? Everyone seems like such an asshole, and no one’s more of a douche than you. Interactions with your mom amount to screaming matches. Seems like nothing’s going to get better, either. Your hair won’t do what you want and your body’s all over the place — childish in parts and alarmingly womanly in others. Your entire world seems small, stupid. If you’re lucky, you have one thing you’re good at. In Andrea Arnold’s spectacular Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis)’s one thing is hip-hop dancing. She sneaks upstairs in their depressing council estate flat to an empty apartment, turns on the music, and works on perfecting her moves. I can’t remember seeing a film like this that shows us the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old so intimately — we’re always with Mia, sharing that lonely, locked-in feeling with her, never looking at her. It’s an extraordinary way to put the viewer into a 15-year-old’s head.

Things shift when suddenly her very young single mother Joanne has a new man in her life — Connor (Michael Fassbender), an Irish guy who just doesn’t fit into the council estate world. He’s so cute, has a middle-class job and a practical man’s car, and expresses such paternal ease and a light touch with Mia and her little sister: what’s he doing with the trashy, foul-mouthed Joanne? And here’s where Arnold captures Mia so perfectly. She doesn’t know whether she wants to flirt with Connor or turn him into the father figure who’d give their lives more stability; she wants both, of course. Because we see everything through Mia’s eyes, we wonder whether Connor is sending mixed signals — and we’re a bit alarmed to realize that we hope he is, even as a sense of unease grows about this seemingly nice guy.

When you’re 15, anything can happen to you — and Mia’s clearly on that precipice. Teenage pregnancy and/or rape are more likely in her precarious world than education or another path to mobility. When she looks at her improbably blonde, half-dressed, alcoholic mother, we know a lot of the venom between them results from the fact that they both know Mia might follow that path too. That’s why her hip-hop dancing is so evocative. It might be private, almost secret, but it gives her power and control over her lanky 15-year-old limbs. Yet being a good dancer gives you no marketable skill. “You dance like a Black,” Connor tells her when he catches her dancing in their miserable little kitchen, she in her pyjamas and he shirtless, unknown. “It’s a compliment,” he clarifies, creating a little bit of confidentiality between them. She scowls, flattered and invaded and attracted. Could dancing be a way out for her? Is she still dancing for herself, or is she dancing for him? When Connor plays Bobby Womack’s haunting, 1960s mellow soul cover of “California Dreamin’,” it means too much to Mia — it becomes their song.

Americans don’t like to watch films about the poor, proclaiming them “depressing,” yet these stories are so real that it seems Katie Jarvis herself is living this life. She had no acting experience when she was discovered for this part fighting with her boyfriend on a train platform. She’d already left school without a diploma, was unemployed, and learned all the dance moves during the filming, giving them a sweet uncertainty. By the time the film was screened at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize, the first of many awards and nominations for the film) Jarvis was pregnant, limiting her capacity to take more roles.

When she was interviewed by UK’s The Guardian Jarvis explained her life with telling caution and honesty: “Whereas before I was doing nothing all the time [the film] made me learn that I could do things if I wanted to do it. It was hard, but it was fun and rewarding. Now I want to make the most of it. It shows that you don’t have to go to drama school to get into it, but I think I was one of a kind, I don’t think anyone else will get picked off a train station.”

Whether or not she gets more parts, she’s extraordinary in this film, which is easily in my Top Five of last year (it was released in a very limited way in the US in 2010) and one of my favorites of the whole decade. It’s so much better than An Education, which I really liked (see here for A. O. Scott’s reasons for agreeing with this point), and probably even better than Winter’s Bone which I keep singing about. I keep this blog for the hope of seeing films like this and spreading the news about them. It’s streaming on Netflix now — watch it and feel this filmmaker’s amazing vision of what it means to look through the eyes of a 15-year-old. And let’s keep watching for more from Andrea Arnold and Katie Jarvis.

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