Saturday, September 12, 2009

TIFF 2009 reviews: Fish Tank

There are times when I think being a movie critic would be the greatest job in the world. To see everything that gets released, to have a paid public forum in which to rave and encourage or in which to lay waste to a, well, waste of celluloid; to travel to festivals around the world; to interview filmmakers both legendary and on their way seems like paradise. Then I'm faced with something like Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, the source of some unofficial buzz so far at this year's TIFF. When I say "unofficial" I mean, I haven't read much about the movie in the way that, say An Education or Up In The Air are getting early Oscar buzz. I have overheard a lot of people in lines talking about it, though, and I've heard from more than a few folks "yeah, wanted to see that one, but it was sold out." Anyway, the critic's dilemma: I have absolutely no idea what to say about Fish Tank. Every time I think I've got a handle on it I wind up deleting the paragraphs with "no, that's not quite it." This is one damned elusive film.

Once again, as was the case with Cleanflix, I feel like the Program(me) Book description isn't quite bang on. Storywise, yeah, no lies there. But rather than a feminist Loach movie with a hip-hop undercurrent, Fish Tank plays very self-consciously hand-held and frustratingly free-form. The director, Andrea Arnold, is actually from my film school alma mater, the AFI, though I don't remember her from my year. This is definitely not what the school was trying to turn out from their director's program (thank god, actually...the AFI was going through an unfortunate cookie-cutter period when I was there, I felt), the biggest influence on the film seems to be Cassavettes...or rather an intervening generation of directors who themselves were influenced by Cassavettes, if that makes any sense. Cross that with the misanthropy of a Todd Solondz and an improvisation-to-script style modeled on Mike Leigh and you're in the ballpark. Though that final comparison falls apart when one remembers that Leigh's characters end up with poetry in their mouths while Katie Jarvis (who is great, don't get me wrong) has little beyond "fook you, ya coont!" ad nauseum. So basically: two hours of unsympathetic people with serious sexual boundary issues being horrible to each other in grey British ghetto settings. I might add (SPOILER ALERT) that I have to wonder what problems with infidelity are plaguing the English zeitgeist of late, as this is the second film out of the four I've seen at the festival so far in which a 16-year-old British girl discovers that the guy she's been screwing is married with a kid in the suburbs. I will be very disappointed if Alice Creed finds out the same thing tonight.

There's also a disturbing and inescapable racial undercurrent to the film: both Jarvis' Mia and her mother are protrayed as products of Black popular culture through their musical obsessions (hip-hop and reggae, respectively) and Michael Fassbender's character introduces old-school soul (specifically Bobby Womack) into the mix. Yet the film is populated entirely by white characters, belieing the melting pot that is modern Britain. That's a charge that may be getting tired; it was well over ten years ago that Notting Hill received flack for the same problem (the eponymous neighborhood in that film has a huge immigrant population in reality yet was portrayed through a Mayberry lens on film), but it lent an odd tilt to the proceedings. Anyway...don't believe the hype. (**1/2...I do have to credit the great perfomances)

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