Gritty council estate dramas are becoming a big thing for UK cinema. They provide a simple, accessible set, social commentary and, most importantly, suit the grainy aesthetic of DV filmmaking as so can be made on a micro-budget. Unfortunately, this has meant that a crowd of KIDULTHOOD emulators and derivates have popped up all over the place.

However, FISH TANK provides an early sign that the genre is also expanding beyond a gimmick to target UK youth audiences and fill this country’s niche in the international film market.

Set outside of London (gasp) on a council estate in Essex, FISH TANK is focussed on the story of 15-year-old Mia. She’s just been thrown out of school, has fought with her friends, and is heading down a route of self-destruction. Her sister is too young to offer any real support, and her mum is more interested in partying than raising her children. But one day a new man appears in their life.

When Mia wakes up one morning to see Connor (Michael Fassbender) in the kitchen, she is torn between anger and lust. Soon the relationship between Connor and Mia’s mother blooms, and he begins to bond with the whole family, but just as things seem to be going well the bond oversteps the line.

The film is remarkable for its depth. It’s not drilling in a message about the hopelessness of poverty, nor is it stylising the lifestyle of those living on council estates. Mia dances not because she can succeed that way (a la every dance movie ever) nor because she has no other outlet for her creativity. Alcohol, drugs and smoking are neither demonised nor glorified, and the same can be said of both the family and sex: both of which form the nucleus of the problems faced by Mia. This web of problems and possibilities is interwoven with the greatest skill by writer/director Andrea Arnold to create a film that succeeds in harnessing all of the dramatic power available in its bleak setting without draining it of its realism by reducing it to a mere storytelling device to aid cinematic consumption.

The impact, and the authenticity, of this film is aided in it’s casting. Obviously Fassbender is a big name to land in a film of this size, and he does put in a great performance, but the real soul of the film comes from Katie Jarvis’s performance as Mia. Reportedly scouted by Andrea Arnold when she was spotted arguing with her boyfriend on the platform at a train station, Jarvis has had no prior acting experience. Given how comfortably she fits the part, it seems unsurprising, but when you see how she copes with some incredibly complex (not to mention uncomfortable) scenes you’ll find it hard to believe.

Put together, all of these elements make for gripping viewing. At over two hours long, the film is no small undertaking. However, I found that the compelling characters and their movingly real stories had me glued to the screen.

A genre-expanding, hard-hitting drama with bags of character, oodles of issues and an amazing central performance, FISH TANK is likely to be among the best films produced in the UK this year.

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This article was first posted on September 9, 2009