By PHUONG LE ‘16
A fish tank might be an unusual metaphor for coming of age, but in fact its merits are not so fare-fetched. Similar to those clueless fishes, teenagers find themselves in situations that they are unable to fully comprehend or even understand why they get there in the first place. Life is only one glass wall away from them and yet, they are constrained by either parental guidance or the limitations of youth. In other words, in those awkward, in between years, they are endlessly intrigued by life and at the same time detached from reality due to their underdeveloped social knowledge. This is exactly the state that Mia Williams, the 15-year-old protagonist of Fish Tank (2009), is in. Filmed in a documentary style, the film is a personal diary that captures her yearning to connect with others and her subsequent failure to do so.
Even though it was released in 2009, Fish Tank was curiously shot in 4:3 instead of the standard widescreen ratio, which intensifies the emotional suffocation that Mia (Kate Jarvis) is growing through. The film opens with an image of entrapment. The camera lingers on the back of her head, as if refuses to reveal her identity, which even Mia herself is not yet sure of. Living in a social housing project in East London, she spend most of her time arguing with her little sister skipping school while her single mother does not care enough to notice. Tomboyish Mia never pays attention to boys but instead focuses on her breakdancing passion. However, complications ensue when she becomes attracted to her mother’s new lover, a handsome Irishman named Connor (Michael Fassbender).
Fish Tank introduces the audience to another side of London that is rarely seen on the big screen. In this area, the houses are dilapidated, the streets are filled with garbage and the citizens are hostile. While her outside environment offers little emotional fulfillment, her family life is no better. The complete lack of adult guidance encourages Mia, her sister and her mother to scream obscenities at one another on a daily basis. One of the enduring images from the movies is when Mia tries to break free a sick horse that is chained to the ground. Unlike the animal, she is still very young but her vitality is harnessed by her socio-economic hardships.
It is worth noted that the movie is directed by Andrea Arnold, a woman director, which offers a different aspect of Mia’s burgeoning female sexuality. As the camera glides on Mia while she dances, it does not objectify her but instead, subjectively portrays the teenager’s own growing awareness of her changing body. However, not all media is produced from the female point of view. Throughout the movie, Mia and her younger sister are constantly exposed to TV programs telling them that young women have to dress or look a certain way in order to be considered attractive.
Fish Tank is ultimately about the confusing process of self-perceiving during the adolescent years. The film revolves around Mia’s gaze as she watches the characters of her daily life but it is unclear if she learns anything about them or even about herself. Locked inside her emotional tank, Mia’s attempts to grow out of her nest seem futile as her actions can barely make waves.