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Despite the familiarity of the narrative, you can practically smell the brackish water of the riverside setting and feel the sweaty discontent and inchoate rage in the lives of the characters.

An English coming of age tale in Fish Tank 

Katie Jarvis as Mia

Photo by Holly Horner/ IFC Films

Katie Jarvis as Mia

Fish Tank opens Friday in select theaters

Kitchen-sink realism has been associated with British theater since the early work of John Osborne in the 1950s, and these depictions of the intimate, messy lives of working-class families have never really gone away. And on it goes through the films of Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Women get in on the act, too—Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey was a theatrical landmark of the late 1950s, and, in film, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher was a memorable effort from a decade ago.

Now there's Fish Tank, the second indie feature film from the English director Andrea Arnold, featuring an arresting debut from teenage performer Katie Jarvis, which is so kitchen-sink that the characters drink water directly from it, for lack of clean glasses, perhaps.

Fish Tank is set in the Essex town of Tilbury, east of London at the mouth of the Thames. It's sunnier here than you typically expect Britain to be, but the characters live in dingy council houses. We meet Mia (Jarvis), a 15-year-old semisocialized girl who lives with her younger sister and Joanne (Kierston Wareing), her scarcely older mother, a tarty blonde who is rapidly going to seed.

Kierston Wareing as Joanne - PHOTO BY HOLLY HORNER/ IFC FILMS

Early scenes establish that Mia has few friends, skips school and loves to dance: Hip-hop is her specialty, and she has a secret abandoned space on the top floor of an apartment building that she uses for practice. In other scenes, she takes an interest in a horse that is being kept by some young vagabonds who live in an abandoned lot. In keeping with the metaphor of animal confinement suggested by the film's title, Mia makes repeated attempts to free the horse, failed efforts that nonetheless bring her into contact with other similarly marginal human beings.

The machinery of the film's plot gets cranking when Mia's mom brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor initially seems like another one of her mother's drunken conquests, but this guy sticks around for a few days, long enough to spend some time with the kids. In contrast to Mia's mother, who is raging against her own vanishing youth and is preoccupied with man-catching, Connor seems like a decent-enough guy, even if the two adults aren't discreet about their lovemaking and drink heavily around the kids. (He's also gainfully employed, no mean feat in the milieu of this film.)

Although Mia is initially hostile to Connor's presence in the household, she warms up to him as he shows more parental interest than her mother does—he encourages her dancing, for example, and questions her judgment for keeping company with a boy he thinks is too old for her. It doesn't take a social worker, however, to predict where Connor and Mia's relationship is going.

There are two distinct approaches to casting actors in the roles of wild, nearly feral characters. One can cast from the pool of trained performers, or one can go to the film's location and try to find nonactors who can persuasively play versions of themselves. In recent years, such works of crunchy realism as Monster, Wendy and Lucy and L'Enfant have featured professional performers playing inarticulate, marginal characters. At the other aesthetic extreme is the conviction that nonprofessionals offer the least mediated, most honest performances—North Carolina native Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) is one of them, following in the footsteps of such illustrious forebears as Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami.

In the case of Fish Tank, we see both approaches in a collaboration between amateur performers and pros. In the case of the lead, Arnold's talent scout went to Tilbury and spotted the teenage Jarvis arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform. Although she couldn't dance, she had movie-star looks and an authentic provincial accent, and got the part. Looking a bit like a Kristen Stewart with less training and slightly more affect, Jarvis is just fine working with the limited emotional palette of her character. Although her dancing is studied and tentative, she gets an assist by favorable comparison to the awful dancers we see elsewhere in the film.

Michael Fassbender as Connor - PHOTO BY HOLLY HORNER/ IFC FILMS

It's the two traditionally trained performers in the emotional and sexual triangle who make Fish Tank succeed as a sure-footed snapshot of an adolescent girl's unpromising life. Fassbender is more known for his work in artificial movie realms (Inglourious Basterds; 300), but here he shows off his comfort with the realist tradition (he also recently starred as an Irish Republican Army martyr in Steve McQueen's Hunger). His Connor manages to be charming, sexual, sensitive and manly before his grievous flaws are exposed. As Joanne, Wareing, who starred in It's a Free World..., by realist filmmaker par excellence Ken Loach, gives a selfless performance as an inept, inattentive mother who becomes sexually threatened by the daughter she obviously bore when she herself was a teenager.

Thematically, Fish Tank doesn't take us anywhere we haven't been before—although there's a rather frightening turn of events in the film's third act as the life of a young child is endangered. Otherwise, the film is a roman à clef about a teenager who needs to figure out how to survive her youth. Despite the ultimate familiarity of the narrative, the film's sense of place is distinct and memorable—you can practically smell the brackish water of the riverside setting and feel the sweaty discontent and inchoate rage in the lives of the characters. Near the film's end, there is a dance between Mia, her mother and her younger sister; it's a strange and hostile one, in which they confront each other as mirrored images of their self-loathing, in an impressive, imaginative finale to a well-wrought film.

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