Some time back, a friend of mine (and you know who you are) foisted Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) on me in a stack of DVDs he felt I “needed” to see. I made it about 20 minutes into the film before consigning it to the realm of “movies I’m only sitting through if I have to review them.” (Ms. Arnold’s next film — a murky version of Wuthering Heights (2011) — suffered the same fate.) Well, now I’ve had to watch it. It still strikes me as warned over “Kitchen Sink” and “Angry Young Man” Brit cinema from the 1950s and 60s. In other words, it’s not a lot more than your standard dose of “Life is a bottomless pit filled with snake turds” miserablism. It differs from most, I suppose, because it’s pretentiously and arrogantly shot in the 4:3 TV format — meaning that it would have (in those pre-all-digital days) ended up being largely shown in cinemas where the image would be hacked off at the top and bottom. If it sounds like I’m down on the film … well, I am — at least on general principles. And the truth is that if I’m going to watch a movie about life in council flats (what we’d call the projects), I’d rather see Harry Brown (2010) or, better yet, Attack the Block (2011). (This, of course, proves how shallow I am.)
However, all that to one side, I did find that Fish Tank becomes an easier watch the longer it goes on — almost weirdly compelling. The story — to the degree that there is one — is about Mia (first-time actress Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old angry young girl. It’s never clear why she’s so much angrier than everyone else, but she is. Her mom (TV actress Kierston Wareing) is a neglectful, sharp-tongued, hard-partying woman, but Mia’s anger seems to have no real focus. Things take a detour when mom takes up with Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor is obviously from another class. He has a car, a solid job and is much better spoken than anyone else in the film. Of course, Mia takes a dislike to him — at first. That should tell you where this is going, and it ought not be too difficult to figure out that Connor must have another life somewhere and isn’t planning on settling in. Filled with obvious — even rather silly — symbolism, the film works best as a character study, but a character study that only fitfully illuminates the players in this drama. It all goes on longer than it needs to, but — and this is why I ended up grudgingly liking the film — it finally works its way (not entirely convincingly) to an ending that’s surprisingly hopeful.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Fish Tank Friday, July 26, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com