Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chavs, Slags, and Pikeys

Film: Fish Tank
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

A couple of days ago, I made a comment about subtitled films, and I’m going to start attempting to watch more of them in April, a real concerted effort toward reducing the number of such films remaining to me on the list. With that said, Fish Tank might well seem like an odd film to choose, because it’s English. But the accent through much of this movie is so thick that at times, I wish I could have turned on subtitles—one of the drawbacks of a lot of streaming films is that subtitles aren’t always an option, and they’d have been useful here.

We start with Mia (Katie Jarvis), whose life is a complete trainwreck. At 15, she’s already realized that her future is a bleak one. She lives in a rundown neighborhood, gets into fights with other girls her age, and is saddled with a foul little sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and an abusive, alcoholic mother (Kierston Wareing). The only thing that’s good in her life is hip-hop dancing. While raw, Mia appears to have some talent. But, ultimately, Mia is something of a chav, but by birth and environment, not by choice.

[chav--noun. Informal and derogatory. A young, working-class person whose tastes, although sometimes expensive, are considered vulgar. An anti-social youth.]

This is the environment that Mia lives in, and there’s little she can do about it. Within the first few moments of the film, Mia observes another chav group dancing sluttily in front of a group of shirtless boys who would belong in a cast photo of Jersey Shore. When she comments on their dancing, a fight almost breaks out; it doesn’t because Mia head-butts one of the girls and runs off. Things aren’t better at home. Sister Tyler is a chav in training—despite being 8 or 9 by appearance, she drinks, smokes, and might possibly be sexually active. Mother Joanne is a slag, and has recently brought home a new guy.

[slag--noun. Informal and derogatory. A fallen, promiscuous woman.]

This new guy is Connor (Michael Fassbender), younger than Joanne, attractive, and employed. Mia is immediately and uncomfortably attracted to him, and isn’t sure how to deal with him. Sometimes, she is willing to trust him, and is almost in awe of him. Other times, she can’t stand to be around him. Similarly, at times he takes a fatherly interest in Mia, and at other times his interest appears to be less than parental and more…something else.

All of this is complicated by the horse that Mia sees in a field. The horse is tied up and held captive by a group of pikeys, and when Mia attempts to free the horse, the results are disastrous. She eventually befriends Billy (Harry Treadaway), one of the pikeys, who tells her that it’s not what she thinks—the horse is actually quite old and ill, and keeping it tethered allows him to take better care of it before it dies.

[pikey--noun. Derogatory. An Irish traveler or gypsy, or a low-class individual. If you’ve seen Snatch, think of Brad Pitt’s character.]

Mia’s hope is to get out of the situation she is in, but her only chance appears to be a club that is looking to hire dancers. She submits an application (after some encouragement from Connor), but this is the only real hope she has. Her sister is verbally abusive, and is the mother’s favorite. Why? Because Tyler is more like Joanne herself. While Mia wants to get away from the hell of her mother’s existence, Tyler has adapted by trying to be as much like Joanne as possible. Joanne is more than verbally abusive—she is also emotionally and physically abusive to her daughter. To complete the abuse buffet, we can throw in the sexual abuse courtesy of Connor, since he commits statutory rape with Mia, having that porn movie fantasy of sex with the mother and the daughter, albeit at different times.

The “fish tank” of the title is, of course, Mia’s life, and it’s an unusual use of the metaphor. Rather than her being on display for all the world to see, here the tank of the title draws attention to how completely she is trapped. Mia wants nothing more than to get away from the life her mother lives and sister will live, but there is no obvious way out. Every way out that shows up appears to just be a tunnel that leads back to the same prison. But, like a fish, she can’t survive outside of that environment. Only the fish in Finding Nemo have managed to escape an aquarium, and Mia is not a cartoon.

Of course, the horse is also a metaphor for Mia, chained and forlorn as it is. Dealing with the horse, though, as well as a few other plot points requires a warning.

*** OI! SPOILER! ***

Mia goes to the audition only to discover that those holding auditions don’t want hip-hop dancers, but strippers. Embarassed and ashamed, Mia retreats and discovers the horse dead. Just like her dreams? Yeah, maybe.

Also, it turns out that Connor is a bigger bastard than just being a pederast. Turns out he’s got a family, as in a wife and kids. When Mia discovers this, she absconds with his daughter and runs off, but eventually returns with the girl, which makes this part of the tale turn out about as well as it can. Still, as a parent, I found this quite disturbing, particularly because it ends with Mia callously tossing the child into the ocean (although she does save her). Equally disturbing is that her discovery of Connor’s marital status is preceded by a breaking and entering of Connor’s house and is followed by a titanic urination on his carpet in retaliation. Evidently, she doesn’t stray far from those chav roots.

*** OI! PISS OFF! ***

Is this a good film? A lot of people seem to think it is. I’m less certain. I’d have liked to see something else happen besides the sex scene, which to my mind feels gratuitous to the plot. Maybe gratuitous is the wrong word—expected is better. It feels like a guaranteed part of the script. Coming of age stories for girls almost always involve a sexual awakening, as if there can be no other way to come of age for young women. For boys, coming of age seems to involve someone (or a dog) dying. I’d have liked to see something different here, because all the sex scene did for me was elicit a sigh of regret, not a gasp of shock.

Why to watch Fish Tank: Real, gritty, wrong-side of the tracks life in the place where people drive on the wrong side of the road.
Why not to watch: Hard to understand...and more formulaic than I expected.


  1. I have to say I really loved this. There was something poetic about parts of it, and I thought Mia's introversion was an interesting characteristic: most of these types of characters are portrayed as loudmouths. Michael Fassbender was also his usual wonderful self (acting-wise), being attractive but ultimately utter swine of the highest order.

    The sequence with Keira made me nervous too (and I'm not a parent!).

    1. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but Fish Tank ended up feeling expected to me, not like the stark new thing that everone else seems to think it is.

  2. I love this movie. Mia is a menace to society! That little sister Tyler is on her way as well.

    The kidnapping was one of the most exciting things I've seen in a movie for a while. I was thinking "That's our Mia!" and I was glad nothing happened to the little girl because that would have ruined it for me. I was very worried that was where it was going.

    And I admit it, I cried at the end when Mia and Tyler were hugging and calling each other "bitches."

    This is definitely one of the movies that makes me happy that the list goes all the way to 2014. I would have missed this otherwise.

    1. We'll disagree on this one. I realize that there are more people who like this than don't, but I have real problems with the fact that I knew exactly where it was going long before it got there.