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Essex girl struggles to make good

The life and times of an Essex girl

The life and times of an Essex girl

Fish Tank – Andrea Arnold

I’m bemused, bewildered and to be honest, bloody angry. What is the widespread acclaim and exaggerated praise for this movie all about? OK, I’m sorry that feisty, attractive 15 year-old Mia’s mother is a dysfunctional, feckless waste of space. I understand that makes Mia conflicted and angry enough to pick a fight and without any physical provocation break the nose of the leader of an equally unlovely bunch of teenage girls on the grounds that their futile aspiration to be dancers is even more detached from reality than is her own. Just. I just don’t buy into the idea that shouting ‘f***’ and ‘f***ing’ a lot and calling anyone she’s pissed off with including her pre-pubescent sister a c***, is incontrovertible proof of either feistiness or hidden strength of character.

When for the love of God or whatever you hold most dear, is someone going to find something interesting, dramatic or worthwhile about the lives of all the non-dysfunctional decent, genuinely strong individuals and families on council estates struggling to bring up kids and pay bills other than for the TV or the booze and fags? I can’t believe I’m saying this because I know what it makes me sound like. But it is true. This film for me almost whinges off the screen. It constantly begs us to blame everything wrong with Mia’s life on her environment, her mum, her mum’s boyfriend, by implication the school, the social worker or some irresistible deterministic combination of them all. Her only response to her mum’s inadequacy is take it out on everyone else, shout and swear a lot and petulantly reject any and very effort to help her other than to indulge her unjustified X-Factor belief that she can dance. In the real world, any 15 year-old girl with the looks, the courage and the strength of character that the superb Katie Jarvis’s performance suggests Mia possesses would have gratefully grabbed the help offered by a dedicated teacher, a committed social worker, or simply a concerned adult and got a grip on what she needed to do to escape repeating her mother’s passively self-defeating personal path to self-pitying misery. Mia’s ‘triumph’ over the shittiness of her life is to bugger off on spec to Wales with a likeable but rootless bloke because he “has a mate there.”

I was raised on a council estate albeit a rural not an urban one: and at a time when journalists – print and broadcast – were not permanently camped out ready to provide the pictures and ‘stories’ to reinforce the preconceived attitudes of their editors at the Sun or the Mail or even the occasional Panorama special. Every community of people has their ‘problem’ families, council estates perhaps more than most, but the idea that the people who shout loudest, behave worst, demand the most attention, are either representative of those communities, or worse, the only ones whose stories are worth telling, is self-serving sentimental claptrap. It is also a deep abiding injustice and insult to the genuine, honest, hard-working majority whose contempt for the loud-mouthed, anti-social minority is equal to that they have for the slumming journalists and film-makers who propagate this lie because it flogs papers to people who want their unexamined prejudices massaged; or puts privileged bums on film festival seats and permits smart-arsed critics or self-obsessed grungily dressed actors to dip into a bit of vicarious street cred. Yo man. Innit?

And please don’t talk to me about Ken Loach or Mike Leigh: there is more warmth, more respect, more understanding, more love in 5 minutes of Looking For Eric, Kes or Vera Drake, than in the whole overblown 123 minutes of Fish Tank. Just as Loach’s lovely little Cantona film says more about the ordinary working man’s love of football than all the exploitative hooligan movies put together.

Yes, technically Fish Tank is accomplished: well shot and edited; cinematographer Robbie Ryan wringing at times a bleak, edgy kind of beauty out of the unpromising Essex urban and suburban fringe landscapes; and Arnold’s direction keeps us up close and personal with Mia. But it isn’t enough: it really isn’t. We know exactly what mum’s boyfriend is going to do long before he does it; and the film invites us to accept it as just what you’d expect; just one of those things. Mia’s revenge is as with almost everything else the script makes her do; petulant, stupid, cruel and utterly pointless. And one scene in her seducer’s middle class family home is I’m sure supposed to be shocking but is in reality just gratuitous. If Jarvis was persuaded to do it for real – because “the scene requires it” that’s pretty close to exploitation – it isn’t necessary and it doesn’t work. The paradoxical void at the heart of this frankly vacuous movie is that Director Arnold cannot or will not let her narrative give us the strong, feisty, courageous young woman Katie Jarvis is so effectively portraying. Victimhood plays. Michael Fassbinder is in the same boat: another good actor whose performance outstrips what Arnold makes his character of Connor, first mum’s lover then Mia’s seducer, actually do.

I won’t summarise the plot: frankly as soon as the tone and the characters are set up – you could write it yourself. Fish Tank is a depressing movie: not because it portrays depressing events but because it exploits a one-dimensional, shallow, clichéd perspective on working class behaviour to create a phoney kind of gritty ‘realism’. I’ve seen documentaries and fictional films about poor, underprivileged people all around the world including recently the excellent Frozen River. Sadly and infuriatingly, with the honourable exception of Leigh and Loach especially, what often defines the British movie on these themes, set in these contexts, is the underlying tone and passive acceptance of victimhood as an emotional hook and dramatic driver. This makes poor British people struggling with adverse social conditions seem weak, put upon and lacking in any kind of constructive rebelliousness, proud defiance. In a word – dignity. And I don’t think that’s true – for a second. And no of course I’m not taking the facile Daily Mail editorial tone, that because one or two make it, everyone can. Anti-social, self-hating gestures of destructive defiance may make good copy and ‘gritty’ movies: but they don’t match up against the truthful portrayal of the inspirational determination of struggling people in other cultures, just to survive and maintain decent standards of behaviour and respect for one another within their poor communities. I think Fish Tank takes a grain of truth and turns it into a massive, destructive, perhaps even unwitting, lie. And the kind of people it purports to portray really do deserve better.

Save your money: and if you haven’t seen it, go and see Looking for Eric instead. Even if you can’t stand football – it really doesn’t matter. One bright spot: Katie Jarvis is a real find. She just needs a film worthy of her talent.

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