Fish Tank

First-time actress Katie Jarvis in a gritty, absolutely winning tale of sexual tension and lost innocence

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An extraordinary little movie, Fish Tank is a fresh take on the sort of intimate, bleak "kitchen sink" dramas Brits are famous for, a worm's eye view of desperation shot with such immediacy and truth you nearly forget the camera is there. It's blazingly alive, a devastating portrait of a bright young girl trying to escape a monstrous parent, cruel peers and a toxic slum through an unseemly relationship with an older man. In rough outline it sounds like a mash-up of Precious and An Education, but Fish Tank is so blunt and real that it makes those excellent films look like The Princess Diaries

The movie puts a laser target on 15-year-old Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis), who lives crammed together in council flat in a neglected, shabby corner of greater London with her bratty little sister and her drunken, slutty mess of a mom. Constantly acting out, she's a tempest of hormonal passions, fired up with nowhere to go. She's barely tolerated at home and a pariah among her peers, a hand grenade of frustration, rage and bad choices in slender track pants and white sneakers. Her only comfort comes from solo hip-hop dance sessions in an abandoned apartment, where she can choreograph her own fantasy future as a professional dancer. 

About the only person who treats her with kindness is her mom's new boyfriend Connor, played with slyly seductive intensity by Michael Fassbinder, who also cut a dashing figure in Inglorious Basterds. He's a revelation just by being nice, taking the girls for a country drive, showing interest, but it's enough to awaken all sorts of barely hidden feelings in Mia. Their slow-burning sexual chemistry eventually explodes in a messy, exciting and wholly regrettable fashion. You see it coming; impulse control is a rarity in this hardscrabble world, where no one has time or energy for the luxury of long-term thinking. 

Jarvis is achingly authentic; a real-life teen mother, she was noticed by director Andrea Arnold during a shouting match with her boyfriend on a train platform, a show-biz discovery tale that beats Lana Turner's soda fountain yarn any day. If Katie arrives at pain naturally, it's because her acting instincts are pure; she never indicates, overcommits or shows us any hint she's doing anything but living in the moment. We know that this is no fairy tale, but the amazing Jarvis leaves us hoping, wishing and praying for something like a happy ending.

Starts Friday, March 5, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Starts Friday, March 5, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

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