Saturday, March 13, 2010

Love: Fish Tank

This Oscar season was full of movies about young girls over coming obstacles and finding love only to lose it. If you combine the plots of Precious and An Education, pump it full of a surreal hip hop soundtrack and inject it with unparalleled realism you'll spit out Fish Tank, a film also about a poor, struggling misunderstood girl who finds love in the wrong man as she finds herself and tries to follow her dreams. But unlike the two films above (which are well done in their own rights as reviewed here and here) Fish Tank is unabashedly alive, a rarity in an increasingly distant Hollywood where films are polished to 3D perfection and actresses are too pretty or well dressed to be the character they're trying to get us to believe in.

The mood of Fish Tank was set in the initial casting. Oscar winner Andrea Arnold discovered lead Katie Jarvis on a train platform at 18, a high school drop-out, pregnant, unemployed, and screaming at her boyfriend who was across the tracks. While Gabourey Sidibe isn't anything like Precious (and perhaps should have won the Oscar for her performance which was so subtle, and so unlike herself), Jarvis may very well be Mia, just in a different context. There is no line drawn across the sand that she must cross, the understanding there in her eyes in every scene, making each look powerful and haunting. Michael Fassbender (the older man that swoops in full of promises) is the only nearly famous person in this film, and each performance is a great reminder of nice it can be to see a film where you don't know any of the actors. It's rare to get this experience, one in which everything is still beautifully rendered into a fantasy, yet with the grit of the true emotions boiling underneath.

The cinematography is the perfect foil to Jarvis' performance. The film is stunningly beautiful, but not in an artificially produced way, different from my usual cinematography favorites like Alfonso Cuaron or recently Tom Ford's A Single Man. Each image is a snapshot of Mia through her eyes, summer and adolescence bottled by director Arnold and let lose on the screen. It's surreal in a special way that reminds you instantly of growing up. You feel the sunshine and the summer wind, feel your own finger tracing the childhood stickers on Mia's now frightful little sister's bed and remember the better days. When Mia sees an old horse chained in a parking lot next to the highway and runs to free it, it's impossible not to become instantly engrossed in the image's strangeness and power.

The sound editing and mixing is also subtly perfect, rounding out the film's ability to capture a season and time of one girl's life and make it universal experience. Music is always blaring from someone's house in the poor apartment high rise, dogs are barking, pots are boiling with water, people are murmuring in the next room. It's a sensual film, each layer bustling with the current of movement and life.

The film reveals the plot and story mainly through these images and snapshots, long looks and feelings. You have to relax and luxuriate in it. It's not driven forward in a typical way, and meanders through like a long summer day. As a result it does get a bit bogged down towards the end, but pulls out of itself quickly, a problem that made me give it just under five hearts, but that might be fixed on a second viewing.
Fish Tank has gotten a lot of hype, but every word of it is true and deserved. If you're able to catch this film as it makes its way through the U.S., don't miss it. It's an absolute gem in a season full of Oscar artifice.

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