Keith Uhlich’s review published on Letterboxd:
Dir. Andrea Arnold. 2009. N/R. 123mins. Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing.
Mia (Jarvis) is an angry British teen with a taste for booty shaking hip-hop. She’s constantly at loggerheads with Mum (Wareing) and Sis (Rebecca Griffiths), but when Mom’s mysterious new boyfriend (Fassbender) moves in with them, she slowly lowers her defenses — much to her disadvantage. His name is Connor, and he’s a wolf among lambs.
Credit the actors with raising the bar on writer-director Andrea Arnold’s Loach-lite coming-of-age story, which — like her morose sorta-revenge thriller, Red Road — is an assured piece of phoniness. Yet even as Arnold too neatly sums up the characters’ troubles time and again (e.g., cueing Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch” during the film’s emotional apex), the performers find kernels of truth in every scene.
A thudding subplot in which Mia attempts to rescue a chained-up white horse is nonetheless touching thanks to Jarvis’s brash assurance — she’s a real find. And Fassbender is unsurprisingly brilliant at blurring the lines between his character’s paternal and carnal affections. A scene where he carries the half-awake Mia up to bed and gently undresses her is beautifully queasy and ambiguous (the primary sound is his metronomically guarded breathing).
Yet Fish Tank is still a grimy kitchen sink melodrama with an Ajax cleanser script: The muck is all surface, the turmoil cleanly shallow and contrived, though never less than gripping. The film builds to a soused, matter-of-fact sex scene meant to profoundly complicate Mia and Connor’s relationship. But rather than honestly and directly dealing with the fallout, Arnold deviates into a generic retribution plot that acts as a creaky catalyst to push Mia out into the world at large. The affected realism thus reveals itself to be a hoi polloi-patronizing crock.—Keith Uhlich