It's not easy to feel happy for a friend or family member when everything you've done in your life has been devalued and derided by those same friends and family. Fifteen year old Mia in 2009's Fish Tank has been conditioned to express rage so casually it's a wonder she attempts to create anything or reach out to anyone. The film is in many ways an impressive work of realism despite some flaws.
Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and prepubescent sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), in public housing in East London. All the children in the neighbourhood listen to hip hop and in one of the more effective early scenes Mia loudly criticises a group of girls practising a dance routine while a few boys quietly look on.
The real, imperfect and quite child-like look of the girls in cheap clothes is an illuminating contrast to the standard, oily music video that obviously inspires them. The disposable sexuality of the videos imitated by children is slightly pathetic and sets up a main plot about unwise sexual encounters.
Joanne starts dating Conor, played by Michael Fassbender. Both she and him are improbably pretty with the kinds of bodies that only come with a gym membership, one of the things that really diminishes the sense of realism in the film. But Fassbender is good here, as he can be under the right directors, quickly adopting a paternal attitude towards Mia and her sister. Joanne can only mock Mia's attempts to become a dancer and generally seems jealous of Mia's youth while Conor introduces a genuinely supportive parental presence. Of course, we're constantly put on edge, wondering when his attitude towards Mia will turn sexual while her need for a father figure is confusingly mixed with a sexual attraction to him. But even with him, when he says something to her that could possibly be construed as negative, she immediately begins yelling about how she hates him and stalks off. Almost everyone in this movie has only two settings--angry or numb.
For the most part, the film maintains an interesting examination of character, augmented by a subplot where Mia tries to steal an emaciated horse from owners she thinks are starving it. When all we hear from her up to that point is that she fucking hates everyone, the gesture is appropriately weird and unattainable. For all the bluster, Mia and her mother mostly just come off as intensely vulnerable.