The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Going against the critics – even if it’s scary

with 9 comments

15 year old Mia, the main character of Fish Tank, hasn’t gotten a lot of love in her life.

Brought up in a miserable suburban area, with a mother who must have been a child herself when she got pregnant, Mia has become a rather unpleasant person. She’s edgy and foul-mouthed, bitter and unable to feel empathy or make a connection to other people. And who can blame her? It’s not easy to give unconditional love if you’ve never received any.

But if Mia didn’t get any love, the movie about her has certainly received a ton of it. As a matter of fact it’s one of those films which have gotten so much praise from critics that it’s close to untouchable and I honestly feel a little bit awkward as I’m about to confess that I wasn’t quite as thrilled by it as everyone else. How much easier wouldn’t it be to just play along and pretend that I loved it, proving myself to be a good member of the illustrious club “We who understand and appreciate art house movies”?  However, that would feel wrong of course. I’ve committed myself to honesty as I’m reflecting over the movies I see, and I’m going to stick to this ambition, even if it might make me look bad. I appreciate a lot of movies with high artistic ambitions that never will reach the huge audiences. Just not this one.

My lack of love

So why is it that I didn’t love Fish Tank?

Well, let’s go back to An Education, which had a somewhat similar theme – a girl getting involved with a guy that may not be all that good for her. That move got my full attention from the beginning to the end. Being a parent, it felt more like a horror movie than anything else. I really cared about the outcome, I cried inside myself when she took unwise decisions (“nooo, don’t do it!”) and I desperately hoped for an acceptable resolution.

Mia’s story didn’t involve me at all in that way and why is that? Is it only the fact that she’s such an unlikable person from the start that puts me off? Maybe, but it can’t be the entire explanation. I’ve seen movies before about far more unsympathetic persons which still have been interesting as case studies if nothing else. Naked, anyone?

Could it be a matter of class differences? Having a middle/upper class background, maybe I can more easily identify with a girl from a similar background? But class differences never stopped me from liking Secrets & Lies, All or Nothing, Trainspotting or This is England, so it sounds unlikely. Having the same background is not a requirement to get involved in a movie.

What else could it be? Maybe the pacing. It was quite slow, especially the first hour, and it also felt a little bit too long compared to the content. I can imagine that it would be possible to cut it down 20-30 minutes without losing that much.  But a better solution would have been to keep the length, but make it denser, using the time to develop some other characters a bit further.

While the decision to let the camera more or less stalk Mia through the entire movie, never watching anything that isn’t from her perspective, is quite stylish and understandable from an artistic point of view, it’s also a little bit limiting. We never get to learn very much about the people around her – her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, her sister and her boyfriend. I would say that if it had been a Mike Leigh movie, there would have been more room for their stories to be told, at least hints of them.

I happened to listen to listen to the latest episode of Kino, a Swedish film show that runs on the radio. The theme for the episode was how the working class is depicted in movies, and I couldn’t help cringing a bit when they pointed out the clichés. Have you for instance thought about how often there’s a wounded animal present in the movies about the working class? I hadn’t. But now I see them everywhere and it certainly doesn’t help my appreciation for Fish Tank.

A wonderful scene
I’ll finish on a positive note though. While I didn’t love Fish Tank, it’s not a bad movie; it’s just another case of a hyped movie that didn’t live up to my high expectations.

It certainly has some very memorable moments, especially a small scene towards the very end that touched my heart, made me tear up a little bit. It felt as if I finally connected to the characters. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen earlier in the movie. Perhaps I need to watch it a second time, but honestly I don’t feel too keen on doing that right now.

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2009) My rating: 3,5/5

Written by Jessica

August 31, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in Fish Tank

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9 Responses

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  1. While I will sort of disagree with you based on the fact that I do love this film. I agree that Mia is somewhat of an unlikable character. Given the environment that she lives in and the people that surrounds her. You do sympathize with the fact that she wants to be good and do good. It’s just that she makes some pretty bad choices while Connor only makes things more complicated for her though he tries to encourage her early on. It’s a very harrowing film for me as it was part of a marathon of films that I explored this past May in relation to the Cannes Film Festival.

    Steven Flores

    August 31, 2011 at 1:19 am

    • I think I was pretty much put off by the mother-daughter relationship all through the movie and by her complete self obsession and unability to care for anyone else but that horse. There are a lot of people who get treated shitty in life who still have the ability for some sort of compassion for others. Maybe she wants to be good and do good but it takes quite a lot of time for that to show at all, and meanwhile all I feel towards her is numbness. But that may be just on a personal level. Maybe there’s some intricate psychological explanation for it, me being a woman with daughters about the same age… I actually felt quite sorry for her mother, flawed as she was. But I had the feeling that the movie maker maybe didn’t.

      I can definitely understand that other people may like it better than I did. I’m in the minority here.


      August 31, 2011 at 10:36 am

  2. I’ll have to disagree with you on Fish Tank, (one of my favourite films, probably). But I like having disagreements with blogs/people I follow, I also commend you for saying that you feel the film is overhyped (I say that with a lot of films, no more so than practically every ‘Best Picture’ Oscar nominated film last year, minus Toy Story 3, Inception, and possibly The Social Network.)

    You definitely raise some good points I hadn’t thought about (having seen the film twice now). One of them I will have to disagree with you on is Mia’s lack of empathy as it were. I don’t think Mia cared for just herself and her horse. She and Tyler had some nice moments, and when all the family are dancing to the Nas track too.

    She wanted to care about others, but with the family that surrounded her, I guess, she never really had the chance.


    August 31, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    • I hope you mean NOT saying that I feel the film is overhyped, because I really try not to make judgements over other people’s likings. However the massive praise for it among critics makes me feel a little bit intimidated as I’m having a different view on it.

      It’s true that Mia eventually started to show a different side, particularly in that dance scene, which I was referring to in the post. I absolutely adored it and it finally opened up the movie to me. But I had to wait SO long for it and I would have wanted some more, not the least some more about her relationship with her mother I think. She was strangely un-portrayed in the movie.

      Edit: On a second look: Hm. I do say it’s hyped in my review. Sorry. Bad wording! I shouldn’t have put it that way.


      August 31, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  3. Confession time! I watched about a third of Fish Tank, saw the direction it was going in and quit. It wasn’t so much because the girl was unlikable (although true), but I hated to see another movie where a young girl is torn to shreds by an older man. An Education was so much more genteel and serene and the girl was pretty much in control the whole time, and she just chalked it up as experience. Fish Tank, it seemed to me, was going to be uglier.

    Interestingly enough, I just saw Naked for the first time. Wow, yeah, like watching a train wreck. The lead performer was amazing, though. You hated and had pity on him all at the same time. But I won’t watch it again because of how the women were treated. I wish they had stood up for themselves more.

    Steve Kimes

    September 2, 2011 at 1:32 am

  4. The scene you refer to in the end that’s got to be the one where they dance to Nas and Life’s A Bitch… right? If so I loved that scene. If not… well I still loved it. 😉

    I liked the music in the film. I liked the cinematography. One thing that was a bit odd was that Mia wasn’t particularly good at dancing to be honest. I liked the story but when the “strange” thing happened it just felt a bit… I don’t know… why couldn’t he just be a nice guy?

    EDIT: I saw in the comments that it was the dance scene you refered to.


    September 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm

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