In an effort to tend to a Criterion backlog in my Netflix Instant queue, I watched Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last night. I remember being intrigued when I caught the preview during a screening of An Education (which would pair well thematically). I was also more than a little nervous that the movie would take working-class girlhood less as a subject of exploration and instead as grounds for moral panic.
What transpires in Arnold’s 2009 feature is something altogether more disconcerting. It’s an unsettling film about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on an Essex council estate with her young mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne, who was probably close to her eldest daughter’s age when she had her, is perpetually drunk and between boyfriends. Mia’s contentious relationship with Tyler is probably the closest thing she has resembling a homosocial friendship. Beyond her connection to local boy Billy (Harry Treadway), Mia doesn’t seem to have friends. Her mom’s new beau Connor (Michael Fassbender) reeks of dishonorable intention.
Mia’s creative outlet is dancing. But this is a solitary activity. She has aspirations to be a b-girl, yet there’s no one with whom to battle or practice. The film is bookended by scenes where Mia attempts to engage with girl dancers in her peer group. All of them are more interested in gyrating like a video vixen instead of popping, locking, and spinning. At the beginning of the film, she admonishes some neighborhood girls for their jiggly routines. Mia spends much of the movie preparing to audition for a local club. When the tryouts finally happen, she’s horrified to discover that the staff is looking for exotic dancers. Two judges preside over the audition. In an interesting twist, it’s the female judge who requests that Mia wear her hair down and asks why she isn’t wearing hot pants. Perhaps recalling an unfortunate set of events with her mother’s boyfriend, Mia walks out of the audition and ultimately leaves home.
Mia’s inability to find a female dance partner or a community who takes any interest in her dancing recalls b-girl Asia One’s frustrations in Rachel Raimist’s hip hop documentary Nobody Knows My Name. Asia One is constantly searching for another girl to dance with and a hip hop video production that isn’t holding casting at a strip club, but neither are easy to come by.
Mia’s one-sided love for a genre and dance form is what really resonated with me. It’s hard to love hip hop sometimes when it doesn’t reciprocate. The film’s soundtrack features Wiley, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, and Gang Starr (RIP, Guru), as well as tracks from James Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and prominent use of Bobby Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'”. The beats are banging and the grooves are deep, but Mia’s often dancing to them alone.
This is why my favorite scene in the film is at the end. Mia is preparing to leave when she finds her mother in the living room, dancing to her daughter’s Nas CD. Joanne tells her daughter to fuck off, which prompts Mia and Tyler to join in on a dance to “Life’s a Bitch.” It’s a touching scene in a film that’s relentlessly bleak. While the movie knows this tender moment is fleeting, it’s also the only time we see Mia dance with people instead of for them or in isolation. It’s also the rare instance where we see a smile on her face. And while Mia moves away from her mother and sister, she leaves her CDs with them. Perhaps this will lead to future dance parties.