If you know anything about sullen teenagers, you know what a rare and fleeting gift it is when they smile. Mia (Katie Jarvis), the 15-year-old at the center of the remarkable, unhappy British film Fish Tank, doesn't have a lot to smile about. She lives in a grim housing project amid a desolate industrial moonscape. She is pawed by neighborhood toughs. Her dissolute mother (Kierston Wareing) is an emotional 15-year-old, and her father is nowhere to be seen. Mia puts up a fierce front, head-butting rival girls, ditching a social worker, drinking and swearing prodigiously.
But Mia has a secret pleasure: hip-hop dancing. She likes to break into a vacant apartment, put in earbuds and practice her moves. And when her mother's new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) compliments her dancing, Mia allows herself a smile that brightens her face - and that will come as a relief to you, the moviegoer, worn down by all the bleakness.
Director Andrea Arnold reportedly hired first-time actress Jarvis after an assistant spotted her in Tilbury, the Essex town where Fish Tank is set. It was inspired casting. I'm very excited about this performance, its honesty, its authenticity. Even in the many wordless interludes, Jarvis plumbs this character's desperation. We also see her profound sadness, in a quick moment that is as revealing as her rare smiles.
Connor could be a force for good. He is steadily employed, he is kind and gentle with Mia's younger sister, and he encourages Mia when she applies for a dancing job. But it's immediately obvious that his interest in Mia is more than fatherly, and what soon develops resembles An Education's schoolgirl-meets-older-man yarn, except you wouldn't find these people at an art auction.
A dismal but predictable revelation follows, and then Mia seeks impulsive revenge in an act so cruel it seems out of character even for this tough girl. But this is the only failing in a movie that's otherwise remarkably acute in depicting the trials of poverty - and the trials of being a teenager, which can be harrowing no matter what.