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.
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?”
Such is the case with 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) — 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.
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 made me laugh out loud from its easy honesty), 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 something 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.
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 maybe even 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 the girls, 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 a little tragic — especially when we see where some of this aggression and abuse has come from — her angry-sad-eyed but ultimately sympathetic mother.
That’s blonde, weathered sexpot Joanne (Kierston Wareing), a young mother who drinks too much, screams at her little girls too much, and leaves them to their own devices far too much. They imbibe, they smoke, they swear – she seems oblivious to it all. Home is one long bitchfest, with mom and little sis, Tyler (a super natural, realistic sister Rebecca Griffiths), so Mia finds escape in a lonely apartment building, drinking and hip hop dancing to rap music.
The household dynamic changes significantly when Mom gets a new boyfriend. That’s the handsome, charming Connor (an extraordinary, complicated Michael Fassbender, showing why he's one of the most interesting actors working), 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 they do something about it.
Truly, their seduction moves from questionably erotic to downright hot, nearing the precipice of exploitation. Mia’s under 16 (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, or he at least knows for certain it will be too complicated/impossible, and this tumble is not worth the trouble. He leaves their family the very next morning. Some may view him as a creep but I think he's more complex and not merely because he's likable and, excuse my language, fuckable Michael Fassbender, but because he could be a good match if only... 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 wrong. Why am I feeling like Mia?
That’s how powerful and persuasive Arnold is as a director (watch Red Road and 2011's inventive, underrated Wuthering Heights). And Jarvis, a non-actress who was discovered on a subway platform arguing with her boyfriend (which is something like the Ken Loach version of Lana Turner’s apocryphal discovery at Schwab's soda fountain), is a revelation, bringing perhaps her own personal anger and poignancy to Mia, never settling on a one-note characterization of angry tough chick or hapless victim or spunky sexy girl. She’s none of these things and then, all of these things, and more — she’s a real, live teenage girl — full-out outward fury and bursts of happiness, particularly when dancing, and of course, curious with her sexuality.
And yet, as loud as she can holler at it, inside, she’s circumspect about her real feelings and especially her place in the world. Walking so aggressively through her shabby, garbage-strewn environment, moving past ugly, depressing architecture and into dank, cheerless rooms where little girls smoke cigarettes and watch bad television on tiny cheap TV’s, she’s so intent on moving — moving away from all of this — and with Arnold’s camera continually following her, we are right there with her.
I said earlier that it’s tough for a teenage girl — but in this moment you see how tough it is for all of these girls/women — these generations of teenage girls, past, present and future. For a second, you actually wish they were dancing with a little more wild abandon, whipping their hair around and laughing hysterically — having some fucking fun. And not for our benefit, but for theirs. After all, they’re not here to amuse you.