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Move Precious to a British ghetto and downsize incest into statutory rape and you get Fish Tank, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s follow-up to her quietly excellent 2007 debut, Red Road. Fish Tank is all about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old who spends her days walking her bleak town in a sweat suit, practicing her hip-hop moves, and fighting with nearly everyone who crosses her path. She hopes that dedicating herself to her chosen art will be a ticket to a better life, one in which she doesn’t have to deal with her waste-case young mother (Kierston Wareing) and a home in which there’s always more booze than food.
So, yeah, the film shares more than a superficial similarity to Step Up, Save the Last Dance, and pretty much every other dance movie released in the last decade. But Fish Tank not only grabs you from the very start—you haven’t heard this many “cunt”s and “fuck”s since Glengarry Glen Ross—it also takes some surprising and bravely subversive turns. Mum’s latest boyfriend, Connor (Hunger’s Michael Fassbender), immediately notices the lovely Mia, and though his attention is always a little skeevy, it initially seems chaste and even good for her. With no friends and a mother who couldn’t care less about her daughter’s life, she finds Connor a relief: He talks to her like an actual person and encourages her dancing.
Things start to look promising when Mia gets a callback for an audition and becomes more intimate with Connor. But those glimmers of hope fade fast, and the story becomes less about Mia’s career prospects and more about what an angry, isolated girl is capable of when something doesn’t go her way. Jarvis is fiery and gripping in her first role, as Mia confronts her setbacks in inventive and shocking ways. Though her actions are chilling, it’s kind of thrilling to watch the girl get so crazy—and, more impressive, her behavior, however extreme, always seems realistic. In a fictional world in which “I hate you” means “I love you” and goodbyes are gaggingly expressed by dancing together, Fish Tank engagingly overcomes its clichés. And it’s certainly a step up from Step Up.