Too Young: An Education and Fish Tank

January 20, 2010

The autumn of 2009 was a very troubling time.  If you can’t summon up the memories from so long ago, fear not, for I will helpfully recap.  As the world geared up for yet another Oscar season, a small film by Lone Scherfig was garnering the kind of awards hype you couldn’t ignore if you tried.  Touting an original screenplay by Nick Hornby, An Education was meant to be a smart, sensitive coming-of-age story featuring a breakout performance by a relative unknown and would, at the very least, herald the beginning of an exciting few months for smart, worthy filmgoers.  Of course, anyone who knows just how awful these ‘award seasons’ are will greet the hype with a sense of knowing, slightly smug dread.  Still, this was hardly a Ron Howard movie, and its smallish, festival roots gave some small amount of hope.  On top of that, any Doctor Who fan worth their salt would never turn down the chance to watch that breakout star, Carey Mulligan, for a few hours.  As it turned out, it was one of the worst seasons for award-bait in a while, and An Education was predictably over praised and now, aside from Mulligan, doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning anything of much significance (offense intended, BAFTA).

Mulligan plays Jenny, a bright 16 year-old who is preparing for a move from her home county to the illustrious intellectual world of 1960 Oxbridge.  Her father, Jack (Alfred Molina, always class even in this one-dimensional role) is as uptight about her concentration on her education as he is about his penny pinching, both of which are inextricably tied up in one another.  Though Jenny is struggling to care about Latin and her cello playing instead of the exciting sounds of emerging French pop, she persists at whatever she can to make her application look more appealing.  She meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who sweeps her up and takes her to exciting restaurants and concerts with his dashing friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike).  Through these three chancers she is introduced to the world of swinging London.  They are exciting and seemingly sophisticated, despite the apparently dodgy (but not too dodgy) ways in which they afford their lifestyle.

The arc becomes obvious pretty early on, and despite a few nice touches (Jack is fine with her giving up her education to marry a dependable man), there’s not much surprising here.  It’s pretty enough, though there isn’t much to distinguish Scherfig’s direction.  Mulligan is very good at anchoring the film as the only drawn character, even if that drawing lacks dimension.  Sarsgaard does well to add hints of psychological question marks, especially the childlike way he approaches sex (this helpfully manages to make them closer to equals age wise, as the inherent tension of an older man isn’t much of an issue outside of facilitating Jenny’s maturing).  Rosamund Pike should be singled out as doing a lot with very little, as Helen is both helpful and threatened and, in some ways, psychologically beat down by not feeling clever enough to really make it in the lad’s world she’s inhabited for some time.

The movie is brimming with nostalgia and innocence, falling victim to the sexy nature of its swinging London setting in the way that detractors wrongly accuse Mad Men.  The costumes, the sets, and the music often seem to take precedence over honest emotional exploration and greatly overshadow the limited consideration of gender roles in that relatively backward society.  This is somewhat understandable, being from the point of view of a teenager, but it never really shakes the rose-tinted glasses vibe.  It’s a wistful look back on what it was like to white and middle class at a time when everything was changing, but nothing more.  The film is fine for most of its running time, but fine is as good as it gets.  The ending is downright terrible, proving us right when we felt the lack of tension.  The middle class girl makes mistakes, learns her lessons, but she’s still middle class and white at the end of the day, and she’s got enough people to support her in getting back on track.  She would always be fine, and her dalliance with an alternative lifestyle was nothing more than that.

In stark contrast, Fish Tank’s Mia has very few options to escape the doldrums of the day to day on her Essex council estate.  Andrea Arnold’s festival hit has received a certain amount of over praising, both in the UK and now in the US, but it’s a small film with virtually no hype and no hope of much in the way of major awards, and even if that doesn’t change my view of it, I can’t begrudge the accolades.  It is also far more deserving of what it’s been getting than An Education.

Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a fifteen year-old living in a tower block flat with her borderline-negligent mother Joanne (Kierston Wearing) and her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths).  She longs to be a dancer, emulating the moves of the girls in hip hop videos and looking on enviously as others her age on the estate form dance troupes.  She’s a bundle of defensive rage, exploding into violence when she can’t control her feelings and running off around the industrial parks that make up her dreary town.  The setting will be familiar in type if not location to followers of the British social realism of Ken Loach, himself carrying on a tradition going back to the kitchen sink dramas of the 60s.  The genre has become a bundle of clichés over the years, depicting the underclass as luckless victims of late capitalism with little to no hope of escape, often for the nodding satisfaction of audiences suffering from middle class guilt.  While the genre is important in informing our expectations for the characters and, indeed, ratcheting up the tension later in the film, Arnold does differentiate Fish Tank by infusing the visual style with a sense of flowing poetry usually missing from Loach’s handheld, docudrama aesthetic.  A tight Academy ratio never lets us forget the claustrophobic smallness of Mia’s world, but the long-take steadicam following shots that compose a large amount of the running time give us the sense of freedom she has to roam in her little world.  Beyond the grey concrete and rusted wire lie fields of grass and an ever-present sky.  While hardly picturesque escapism, there is beauty amongst the grime.

Joanne is still young at heart, unwilling to give up her drinking and partying ways even though she has a teenager in the house.  Mia is forced to stay upstairs in her room while her mother stays up with her friends drinking and dancing in the living room.  Joanne meets an attractive mate in Connor (Michael Fassbender), who quickly sets himself apart from what we presume to be her normal class of men by being interesting, caring, and not condescending. As he fulfills the father role Mia has clearly been without for a long while, her adolescent maturing confuses her feelings and the inevitable but still gut-wrenching tension in their relationship tightens and tightens until its almost unbearable.  Make no mistake, this can be a very stressful film, and Arnold does an excellent job of balancing her gliding camera while constantly raising the stakes from role model affection to something more inappropriate and well beyond seamlessly.  I won’t spoil everything, but there’s a truly terrifying sequence where we have absolutely no idea what is going to happen.  Our knowledge of the bleakness of the genre combined with a cunning piece of foreshadowing make for a powerful turn of the plot, and I cannot applaud the skill involved enough.

Katie Jarvis has been justifiably lauded for her performance.  Supposedly spotted by the casting director having an argument with her boyfriend on a train platform, one can easily write this off as her merely playing herself, but portraying that vulnerable anger and confusion is no easy task, and she clearly has a natural talent.  Fassbender is fantastic here, and combined with his recent turns in Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, he’s certainly the acting find of 2009.  Connor is in equal measure fatherly, understanding, and lecherous.  His drunken regret makes the character, if not sympathetic (he certainly is not that), then at least understandable.

The film is not without its problems, some of which are significant.  On the smaller scale, Arnold uses brief freeze-frames to emphasize moments of intimacy, but it doesn’t really work.  Soderbergh used the tactic to heighten the playful sensuality between his two leads in Out of Sight, which worked in that film’s aesthetic while here it is on the nose and distracting.  The dance motif is a mixed bag, working thematically more or less but failing at key points in execution.  I can forgive the quick editing during Mia’s practice sessions to an extent, as it seems obvious that Jarvis just can’t dance and sometimes you just have to cut around a performance to make it work.  I do like the fact that she sees her passion more as a glamorous escape rather than an expression of sexuality, and the way that conflict works during a seduction scene is great.  However, the ties with her mother and the resolution as a whole fail miserably, almost fatally.  Likewise a side plot that leads to a very disappointing conclusion to the film itself is underdeveloped, and while any epilogue would be hard pressed to handle to the build-up and the climax, at the end of the day it is far from satisfactory.

Still, an imperfect beast though it is, Fish Tank’s triumphs outweigh its failings.  Arnold has incredible potential, and I would definitely recommend the film for its beauty, tension, and the performances.  The mixing of gritty realism and visual poetry with a dash of surrealism works far better than you might expect.  And in comparison with the shallow, nostalgic nothingness of An Education, it is positively a masterpiece.  So if you only see one coming-of-age story about inappropriate relationships this year…

-M

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