Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fish Tank (Film Review) by Joseph DiLella

Ever have the urge to run as fast as you can for as long as you can to cast out the demons, the fears and the anger of your so-called life? Marathon runners who train daily fall into a certain rhythm, a dreamlike state that relaxes and soothes the tensions of everyday life. In Night Fever, a hit movie in the late 70's, John Travolta escapes life’s mundane chores and rituals not through running, but in the artistic expression of dance. In Fish Tank, Mia, the fifteen year old tenant dwelling teen, copes with her less than average life through the only thing she has going – falling into the groove of physical movement as a tonic for the less than stellar existence.

A wannabe hip hop dancer in hard training, who attempts to find solitude anywhere she can (typically in abandoned apartments), Mia, one overcast afternoon, challenges one of her school mates to a fight in the park - because she too fancies herself a modern day equivalent to Vanilla Ice in his prime. After a bloody punch to the nose, Mia sends a clear message to her peers: I'm the one gettin' out of here alive on my talents - not you.

Fish Tank, a British and Cannes Winner for Best Film of 2009, features Katie Jarvis (in her film debut) as Mia, the pony-tailed, soon to be high school dropout. Mark Fassbender (Inglorious Bastards fame) plays Conner, her mother's handsome and charming boyfriend who appears to be a man of moral standards. Though a beautiful and athletic young teen, Mia is free of love’s entanglements but is curious about what it means to be in love, to be with another and to find that special someone to give her life meaning beyond the world of dance. Mia has no one to lean on in this world – no father, brother or mentor figure who can simply tell her that she’s okay for who she is regardless of her troubles at school and unsure career and life ambitions.

Though she is emotionally hardened for survival sake, she is soft boiled on the inside. On a run near the river one day, Mia sees a malnourished horse and tries to free it from bondage in a trailer park. Mia runs into Billy, the young owner of the equine, before picking the lock and he saves her from attack by a group of thugs, his friends, who thinks she’s an easy mark to rape. Though the two seem like water and oil, both are of the same ilk - two souls lost in the jungle of human debris in the slums of Essex – neither seem ready to admit their attraction to one another. One can only hope Mia can find a respite from her loneliness, perhaps through Billy, and break the chains from her domineering mother and younger sister who depend on her to be the rock of the family.

Back with the family one afternoon, her mother’s boyfriend suggests that all three ladies go fishing in a nearby lake. A man of musical good tastes, the Irish lad shoves a Bobby Womak CD into the player and “California Dreamin’’ brings out Mia infatuated connection to the man. Later that day, after stepping on a sharp rock while barefoot in the water, Connor carries the teenager to the shore and returns to the car to bandage her foot. Afterwards, both find themselves dancing, showing off to one another, in a not so subtle way, that both have the grooves and moves to attract any mate - but in this case, the wrong ones.

At her mother's birthday party later in the week, Mia eyes Conner flirting with other women, and eventually spies on Connor and Joann making love upstairs. The teen's jealousy is softened by whisky. She passes out on her mother’s bed. After kicking out the other late party goers, Joanne tells Conner to kick her daughter out of her bed, but he refuses and lifts her gently from the mattress and back to her room . . . where he pulls off her shoes, socks and pants and covers her with a warm blanket. The lithe brunette follows the man of her dreams through a slit in her eyes, hoping that he will do the unspeakable, but he does not. If only Mia had a different bedtime wish perhaps her life would have taken a turn for the better for as the saying goes: Never wish for something - you may actually receive it.

The next day a truant officer drops by and has a talk with Mia and Joanne. After threatening to kick the oldest daughter out of the house for not attending school, Mia screams out the back door threatening never to return home. Upon her escape in the asphalt jungle, the young woman visits a record store and sees an ad for 'dancers wanted' on the glass door. Easy enough to borrow a video player and show those night club folk who can dance, right? Well, after a week of practice, Mia records her best moves in a dirty gray sweat pants and sweater but is reluctant to send the tape to the address. "Don't you think you're good enough?" asks Conner at the handyman store downtown. "Of course I do," she replies but truly does not believe it. "I've seen your moves, you're better than you think, Mia." That's all she needs, a parental figure's acceptance and reassurance. Unfortunately, it is the last noble gesture Connor will make towards his girlfriend's underage daughter.

The next day, after mailing the letter and tape, Mia returns to the trailer park to visit the malnourished horse but finds none bound by links to the stone. "He's gone," says Billy, and this is the chain that slowly ties the two together. Days later, Mia brings her new boyfriend to Connor at work to show off her trophy. Instead of being happy for the young couple, the foreman of the lumber yard takes it as a challenge to his manhood. A few nights later, after a fight with Joanne, Mia sees Conner alone and drunk on the couch. She dances to 'California Dreamin' per his request and before she can perform the second chorus, the man who should have known better does the unthinkable with Mia’s reluctant consent.

As an audience member, one is hard pressed to look upon the crime and sin of passion not as only a rape but as a sexual rite of passage for the teen. Is sex between a mature teen and a man in his 40’s rape pure and simple? The answer is clear. Regardless of the intent by the producers, the scene is the pivotal point of the movie, for although the act may have poisoned the virtue of the teen, she uses it to find inner strength in a way she never thought could muster in a world that has given nothing more to her than a kick in the face.

The final thirty minutes are a difficult watch if one has fallen for the character. Connor breaks-up with Joanne the next day and shuns any contact from Mia. Mixing the feeling of love with intimacy, Mia visits Connor’s home only to find out he’s married and has a seven year old daughter. Incensed with his betrayal, she breaks inside and learns about who Connor truly is through photo albums - a family man of over ten years. Her next move is laughable and the audience applauds. But when she kidnaps Connor's child and brings her down to the ocean, well, one wonders what the end will be for her, Connor and the lives both of them have touched with dishonesty, disloyalty and emotional devastation.

Love may conquer all in theory, but in the reality of the cinema, finding true friendship, loyalty and intimacy is never easy. Certain questions are answered: Does the teen find success as a dancer? Can she contain the fury of a woman scorned? Does she escape the inner city with hope and determination to be someone of importance in the world? In the end, we are hopeful that Mia may have found something she had all along – the courage to stand up to herself in the mirror and see not the reflection of a hopeless hip hopper, but rather one of fortitude and of one who has the ability to take the hand of another for support and . . . youthful love.

Author bio:

After teaching in a southwest state-run university for five years, Joseph is finally back at home with his wife and 21 month old baby girl. Whether it is relaxing on the beach in southern California or juggling teaching gigs at San Diego State University and other universities, the author plans to take time writing poems and short stories while contemplating his navel and deciding on which direction he wishes his life to take for himself and his family.

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