The films of Andrea Arnold are uneasy, messy and propulsive. She focuses in on the perspective of tough, ragged, flawed individuals, chipping away at their hardness until they are revealed, vulnerable. An open wound daring us to apply salt or salve.
Fish Tank is no exception, and like others in Arnold’s filmography it centers on a teenage girl raised in poverty. This character, Mia, is tragic but tenacious, never letting her circumstances get the better of her for long, even when those circumstances involve humiliation, neglect, abandonment and abuse. Embittered from a life too full of disappointment, Mia masks her aching loneliness with insults, foul language, and scrappy neighborhood brawling. When she is brave enough to attempt a relationship with another person, her efforts to connect are awkward, her understanding of what to do once the connection is forged: non-existent. Often, her affection finds itself misplaced with those who treat it carelessly or even harmfully.
Arnold is masterful in depicting Mia’s East London world—both its dynamism and its unforgiving concrete dankness. She remains relentlessly in Mia’s point of view, forcing the viewer to confront then let go of preconceptions about the character, to see her humanity and seek to understand her desperation. We are forced to look closely enough to see that the behavior that initially might have repelled us has been hard-earned from a life full of heartbreaks, both minor and major.
Once that becomes apparent about a character in a movie, it becomes that much easier to assume that the same might be true about our fellow man, and then to consider what it would take to find empathy for those people too. Andrea Arnold has made a career of encouraging us to take an outsider into our hearts, reminding us of our commonality. Dirty and downtrodden though we may be, we all deserve to be seen.