03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Hard Out There For A Nymph: 'Fish Tank'

FISHTANKkatie.jpg picture by BrandoBardot

It's tough being a teenage girl. Especially when enduring (and hopefully, when you can) enjoying, that breakthrough age of 15. A lot happens when you're 15. Though some girls float through adolescence with a winsome (or conceited) confidence -- soaking in and gaining assurance from their protected status as daddy's little princesses; or benefiting from strong, supportive mothers, those not blessed with such luxuries (and having two parents like that is a luxury; it shouldn't be, but it is) find themselves stomping and scraping and screaming through youth with a special kind of Napoleon complex that only female teens and Joe Pesci possess.

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Teenage girls, from intelligent young lasses rolling their eyes through AP English to those rampaging their way through baby burlesque episodes of Maury Povich, are constantly enduring life's "Get your shine-box" indignities -- even if they can't properly articulate what those indignities are. They just know they don't like them. As in, they don't like how you're eye-balling them. They don't like your passive-aggressive insulting missives. They don't like your aggressive-aggressive insulting missives. And they especially don't like your fucking tone. "You don't know me! You don't know me!" they proclaim, pugnaciously echoing the query: "Am I here to amuse you?"

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Such is the case with 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (her second picture after the impressive Red Road) -- a rough, yet sensitive kitchen sink drama that finds our young heroine stuck in the British projects, clomping through its ugliness with a touching mixture of righteous indignation and moist-eyed vulnerability.

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She's 15, so playing tough girl is still a form of playing. She and her little sister exchange pleasantries like "fuck face" and "cunt bucket" (which actually made me laugh out loud from its easy honesty -- a pre-teen girl casually declaring her sister the c-word, my goodness), and yet she's not playing: Mia's surroundings are making her grow up -- harder and faster and with an enormous chip on her shoulder. She has little power in the world save for her youth and vigor and spunk and, as is often the case with teenage girls, her blossoming sexuality -- a beautiful thing and yet, a thing that will cause confusion and pain. When a group of guys roughhouse Mia, grabbing and holding her with the intent of possible violation, she kicks and screams and valiantly runs away. It's a wonderful scene watching Mia refuse to be victimized, but then the shot of her fleeing so quickly and breathing so hard reveals her fear -- and that's both sad and supremely touching. She's still a kid. And again, it's damn hard for a teenage girl.

FISHTANKjarvis.jpg picture by BrandoBardot

A lone wolf, Mia is clearly intelligent, but probably doesn't know just how smart she is. When watching a small group of scantily clad teen girls engaging in an overtly sexual dance routine, she looks at their attempts to emulate the Beyoncé, Britney, Christina, Pussycat Doll ideal with bemused disgust. To Mia, this isn't dancing and she informs the belly-pierced clan flat-out: they suck. It's a telling moment that Mia, who loves to dance, would not only hold some standards regarding their rehearsal, but be both threatened and repulsed by the girl's sexual movements. This kind of overt sexuality is going to serve an important, thrilling, but frequently annoying role in her life, and especially with her dreams of dancing (as a later scene in a strip club will show). You get the sense that this is all washing over her as she observes them, and so after they charge back at her with that patent and tired insult between girls (she's ugly), Mia pulls out the Pesci and head-butts one of them.

In another movie, this moment might inspire an "Oh, hell yes!" with the audience. But Arnold isn't that simplistic. It's a funny and scary moment, but also it's a little tragic -- especially when we see where some of this aggression and abuse has come from -- her terrible mother.

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That's blonde sexpot and perpetual loser Joanne (Kierston Wareing), a young mother who drinks too much, screams at her little girls too much, and leaves them to their own devices. They (all of the girls and women) imbibe, they smoke, they swear -- she seems oblivious to it all. Home is one long bitch-fest, with mom and little sis, Tyler (an impressive Rebecca Griffiths) constantly squabbling, so Mia finds escape in a lonely apartment building, drinking and hip hop dancing to rap music.

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The household dynamic changes significantly when Mom gets a new boyfriend. That's the handsome, charming Connor (an extraordinary Michael Fassbender), who cares more about the girls than Mom does. He takes them fishing, he carries them to bed, and he encourages Mia's dancing, even introducing her to the sounds of James Brown and most especially Bobby Womack's gorgeously heart-rending version of "California Dreamin'" (he has good taste), and letting her borrow a video camera to record one of her routines. He also finds himself attracted to her, but you're not certain at first. Mia is clearly smitten with Connor, and as she watches him make love to her mother through a half-open door, she's curious and probably jealous. This guy may be the only positive paternal influence she's had, but it's mixed up in heated sexual desire. She wants him. And, in a shocking, but bravely erotic scene, he wants her -- and then...they do something about it.

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And, truly, their seduction moves from questionably erotic to downright hot, nearing the precipice of exploitation. Mia's under 16 (under the age of legal consent in England) and Connor's closing in on 30 -- or older. We should be outraged. We're not.

This isn't to say the moment plays like Pia Zadora in "Butterfly" (not that I'm slamming "Butterfly"), but Arnold is so honest with her story and characters, and the actors so adept at revealing subtle, conflicted nuances, that it unfolds like it had to happen. It would be more insulting to Mia had Arnold made her spitfire little heroine the cardboard cutout victim -- sagging in the aftermath of statutory rape. Instead, she allows this girl to have a serious crush, to feel lust, to yearn for one bright spot in her otherwise dreary life.

What Connor does is wrong, and he knows it. So much so that he (spoiler alert) will exit their family the very next morning. You actually feel badly for Mia when he leaves. And as she chases after his car, you have to stop yourself to think: Wait a second, what he did was again, wrong. Why am I feeling like Mia?

Read my entire piece at IFC, where I'm this month's guest critic.

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.

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