"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Fish Tank [Andrea Arnold, 2009]

Fish Tank (which won the 2009 Jury Prize at Cannes) is a skillfully wrought and emotionally tense coming-of-age drama. Much fuss is being made over the acting debut of Kate Jarvis and deservedly so: her performance carries the entire film. Her real-life story is straight out of a fairy-tale; she was discovered having a fight with her boyfriend on train platform.

From time to time a film will remind us of the advantages of using non-professional actors; Fish Tank is such a film. Bazin writes of actors “who play on the screen the roles of their daily lives” and Kate Jarvis certainly comes from a similar background as her character Mia, an abrasive adolescent who dances to hip-hop music and dreams of escaping her impoverished milieu.


The expert Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) plays her mother’s boyfriend Connor, who turns his eye toward Mia while simultaneously filling in for her absent father. In one provocative sequence, he offers an injured Mia a piggyback ride that can be viewed as a protective as well as an erotic gesture.


What most critics have overlooked is that the dynamic between Jarvis and Fassbender, between a non-professional and a professional, mimics the power dynamic in the film. This makes their interactions work on several levels: when Mia watches Connor, her gaze is tinged with curiosity, fascination and a longing to connect; when Jarvis watches Fassbender as an actor, she is studying him with that same curiosity, fascination and desire. Similarly when Conner challenges Mia to perform for him, the actor Fassbender can be viewed as asking Jarvis to demonstrate her acting chops—in effect, to bring everything she can to the table. Bazin would approve of this parallel to their real-life relationship: in fact, he didn’t advocate solely for the use of non-professional actors but for a “casual mixing of professionals and those who act just occasionally”—what he terms an amalgam of players. It is precisely this amalgam that generates an on-screen relationship worth watching.

Read an interview with Kate Jarvis here from Little White Lies

Category: film reviews, performance

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2 Responses

  1. Nic Johnson says:

    What an interesting parallel you draw between the characters’ relationship and that between the two actors. It sorta must be true, but it was smart to see it.

  2. Fast Eddie says:

    This one and Ursula Meier’s Home are my favorites from recent times, especially in what concerns directors coming into being.

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