The 1994 Nas song “Life’s a Bitch”—one of the most cynical, yet most admired rap singles ever made—has finally found its film equivalent. The song appears on the soundtrack of the new British movie Fish Tank as to authenticate its grim story of a teenage white girl’s alienation. But the pathetic, council-flat life of runty 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) doesn’t take place in Nas’ 1990s. Despite the film’s pretenses of social realism, its contemporary-set story merely borrows those once-fashionable postures of working-class alienation. It’s the same sullen despondency that makes “Life’s a Bitch” so irredeemably phony. Both song and film pander to underprivileged self-pity.
This knee-jerk pathos is a reflex from both America’s Reagan-era hip-hop and England’s Thatcher-era miserabilist pop. Call it Automatic Pity.
Making her second feature film, director Andrea Arnold follows the Loach-Clarke-Leigh template but with none of the insight. Arnold has baby-sister impudence. Mia’s misery is routine, just as the circumstances of her dislocation (her still-immature, romantically active single mother who keeps a slatternly home; her lack of educational interest; her submersion in overly sexualized teen pop) establishes a cliché portrait of social ills. This almost anorexically thin white girl who likes to break-dance fits clinical stereotypes no differently than the obese black girl of Precious.
It’s a true pop culture irony—and calamity—that Arnold introduces Mia loping through the streets of her housing projects as the camera tracks her in a single shot that instantly recalls Alan Clarke’s truth-hunting technique in the 1989 film Elephant (about a sullen, overweight black girl misunderstood by family and social workers). Clarke filmed like a political and emotional detective (his insight clearly influenced Shane Meadows’ superb films on contemporary British class problems).
Like Nas, Arnold broods over Mia’s condition and fakes empathy with the girl’s selfishness—the same solipsistic immaturity that separates Nas’ hip-hop from Motown and blues truths. Arnold seems confused by the way pop music expresses working-class experience. Mia discovers Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreaming” through Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s lover who first flirts with Mia by telling her, “You dance like a black. It’s a compliment.” Arnold merely drops this pop reference, never creating its cultural context as Shane Meadows did with the diverse, sometimes contradictory, punk, reggae and soul music influences in This Is England.
In Fish Tank, Arnold displays a patronizing social view like Allison Anders’ film on Chicano girl gangs, Mi Vida Loca. Arnold’s Automatic Pity also shifts from cultural critique to a puberty alarum. No quicker than it takes Nas to mangle a soul music truism, Fish Tank counts down to Mia’s seduction by Connor. That age-old jailbait subplot (made almost credible by Fassbender’s horny confusion and instantaneous regret) is an obvious plot cliché without the freshness of the 1988 Brit-girl drama Wish You Were Here, where Emily Lloyd played a classic female example of unruly English youth. By reducing Connor’s complexity, then ignoring the more interesting character of Mia’s mother Joanne (the strikingly nubile—and better dancer—Kierston Wareing), Arnold proves she hasn’t really pinpointed her subject. Her opportunistic narrative never consistently follows Mia’s development; she absurdly goes from horse-loving adolescent to an Amy Fisher-like vandal and kidnapper.
The final scene where Mia and Joanne line-dance together but refuse to embrace is the fakest scene of mother-daughter tension since Precious. Arnold makes an equally obnoxious implication that both generations of women have been bamboozled by pop culture. She suggests that pop teaches young women about sex without teaching them about love. It’s just another guilty-liberal myth and the music of Dusty Springfield, Joan Armatrading, The Au Pairs and Echobelly’s Sonya Madan exist to refute that fallacy.
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Runtime: 123 min.
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