Fish Tank (15)

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The Independent Culture

Coming of age is also the keynote of Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, though its mood is one of anguish rather than nostalgia.

Like her startling debut Red Road (2006) this is set in high-rise, low-income Britain around the emotional travails of a young woman. Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives on a housing estate close to rural Essex with her mum (Kierston Wareing) and sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). She's a spitfire with a bad reputation and an aggressive instinct – Vicky Pollard would probably keep out of her way. "What's wrong with you?" asks her mum. "You're what's wrong with me," she snaps. Only dancing to hip-hop in an abandoned flat gives her release and enjoyment.

When her mum's new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) moves into their flat Mia is surprised, and affected, by the idea of someone being nice to her. She begins to respond to his charm, but as the weeks pass it gradually becomes apparent that Connor might not be the carefree gadabout he seems. Arnold controls this simmering tension as adroitly as she did in her first film: it's a real skill to present quite unpleasant characters and then reveal them as vulnerable, even loveable. She is also blessed with a remarkable eye for place. Fish Tank balances the urban against the bucolic, first in virtuoso shots of a tethered white horse by a motorway overpass, later in a long, heart-stopping, sequence that changes from suburban Tilbury to the ominous marshlands of coastal Essex.

In her first film Katie Jarvis gives a fabulously sullen performance. Her Mia is angry and hostile and knows it – yet the single time she smiles it changes her whole face. Arnold has told how she first spotted Jarvis, arguing with her boyfriend on Tilbury station. It took a brave person to approach her. Michael Fassbender, still reed-thin from his Bobby Sands ordeal in Hunger, gives good value as the charismatic interloper; he seems so at ease with character you can imagine him taking on just about anything. These two, and Rebecca Griffiths as a pint-sized, potty-mouthed sister, lend a human vitality to a film of bleak impersonal spaces.