Life’s a bitch and then you die. So it goes.
Mia, her single mom Joanne, and younger sister Tyler dance in unison to Nas’ mid-90s hit in a poignant, bittersweet scene at the end of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2009. The film is a widely critically acclaimed look into 15-year-old Mia’s everyday life and aspirations of becoming a hip-hop dancer in the seedy Essex projects. Mia is an impulsive, loudmouthed loner who makes bad decisions, but one cannot help but identify with her and hope that she succeeds, despite evidence to the contrary. While she puts on a tough front for the world, Mia is a teenager with a lack of nurturing guidance who desperately needs someone to hang onto, to connect with; she has her own moments of vulnerability and naïveté, just like everyone else. These moments are unfortunately manipulated by her mom’s charismatic, attractive boyfriend Connor (one of Michael Fassbender’s most cunning performances to date).
Although it is often regarded as a bummer, Fish Tank contains more hopeful moments than most people give it credit for. Of course, Mia’s life is, in fact,a bitch: she’s broke, her mom reminds her that she should have been aborted, social services coming after her, she can count her friends on one hand, and the only guy she’s interested in is dating her mom while simultaneously hiding a marriage and a daughter (who she almost accidentally drowns). As any working class person living in a capitalist hellscape can attest, life is not exactly a walk in the park. However, there’s a biting, humorous underbelly to Nas’ words that should not be ignored; if life sucks and then it’s over, why not do what you want? Think of it as the 1990s version of “You only live once.” Why not try to free a shackled horse, dance like no one is watching, get drunk, get in a fight, chase your dreams, leave your hometown?
Freedom is at the heart of Fish Tank, even when its head is full of despair and loneliness. Music is the blood that pumps through that heart. Mia and Connor bond over Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreamin,” Joanne dances alone to pop music in the kitchen in one of her few expressions of joy, and of course, Mia, Joanne, and Tyler dance to “Life’s a Bitch” as Mia is getting ready to say goodbye to them for good. Mia’s dancing is less about performance for the sake of others and more about expressing her many impulses, whether self-destructive or liberating, which separates her from the clique of girls she leaves behind. Mia’s dedication to dance is what gives her hope for the future, and watching her dance is what gives the audience hope. Ultimately, Mia is able to escape the unforgiving environment that suffocates her throughout the film.
These glimpses of hope, Mia’s tenacity, and Arnold’s adept visual storytelling are what have encouraged me to return to Fish Tank multiple times over the years. As an isolated teenager myself, the film became a welcome refuge. Surprising no one, navigating sex and relationships at age 15 turned out to not be as easy as mainstream films and television made it out to be, and for a long time it felt like Arnold was one of the only filmmakers who understood that. Mia’s rage was, and still is, familiar, but so is her ambition for something better. When faced with disappointment, heartbreak, and betrayal, it is tough for both adolescents and adults to not respond with anger or sadness; however, we cannot help but strive for something better. I used to wonder why Mia was so persistent in liberating the horse, but now I ask myself, is that not what any sane person would do?
Another reason why Fish Tank endures is Arnold’s use of media in the film; the amount of reality television that they watch feels almost oppressive at times. It’s this slice of life approach to filmmaking that sets Arnold apart from others; while most directors might avoid showing characters watching television, Arnold knows that the boring, sedentary parts of modern-day life have their places in cinema, too. If we are being honest, a lot of us spend lots of hours watching content, and Arnold was at the forefront of putting this on the big screen. Whether it’s a makeover show or a show about house tours, her characters are transfixed by wealthy people showing off their fancy stuff; not only Mia and Tyler, but the adults are also affected by this phenomenon. Although reality television was already popular in the late 2000s, it feels as if Arnold predicted the almost unavoidable nature of reality television today. The characters are all so captivated by reality television, just as people are today, for a similar reason as to why I am so captivated by cinema: it provides a window into another world whenever you need the escape from your current situation.
While there have been strides within the past ten years, the film/television industry still has a long way to go (ice cold take). It turns out that you can be a world-renowned auteur with three Cannes Jury Prizes and an Academy Award, and life can still be a bitch if you’re a woman. I am of course referring to the abhorrent way HBO treated Arnold artistically for the second season of Big Little Lies; letting Arnold believe that she had full artistic control until the post production stage, and then completely shutting her out, was despicable and disappointing to hear about, especially as a fledgling woman in the industry. If Mia had been in that meeting, everyone would have left with hurt feelings and at least on person would have gotten a black eye.
In a 2009 interview with Telegraph when Fish Tank was first released, Arnold said that she wished cinema could be braver, or had more money to show films like hers; films that highlight the lives of characters who do not have a lot. Ten years on, this still resonates.
You can watch Fish Tank online on the Criterion Channel.