Going against the critics – even if it’s scary | The Velvet Café

fishtank15 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

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