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Film / Fish Tank

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Fish Tank is a 2009 British drama film written and directed by Andrea Arnold. It premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize.

Set in the Council Estate of Mardyke (since demolished) in East London, the film follows Mia Williams, a volatile 15-year-old girl who smokes, drinks, curses like a sailor, and has a habit of resolving conflicts by headbutting people in the nose. The main reason for this, besides the general hopelessness of her surroundings, is her thirtysomething mother Joanne, who also smokes, drinks, and curses like a sailor, verbally abuses her, and has a habit of hosting wild parties in the apartment with little regard to her or her preteen sister Tyler.

The headbutting gets Mia a ticket to reform school, much to the unconcealed delight of Joanne. Mia has her own dreams of getting out of the neighborhood through her aspirations of being a hip-hop dancer, which she constantly practices. But another possible way out enters her life in the form of Conor (Michael Fassbender), Joanne's handsome, charming new boyfriend, who for a little while appears to be a possible father figure to Mia. But Conor is not all that he seems.

See also the 2003 short film Wasp, also directed by Arnold as a quasi-Perspective Flip on this film with the same setting and similar characters but from the perspective of the unfit mother.


  • Abusive Parents: Joanne, an alcoholic, is verbally abusive to Mia. In one scene, she tells Mia she should have had an abortion when she was pregnant with her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mia agrees to accompany Billy to Wales. Though she and Joanne have an acrimonious relationship, Mia joins Joanne and Tyler in an impromptu dance to Nas' "Life's a Bitch." As she gets into the car with Billy, there is a hint of a brighter future for Mia.
  • Comforting Comforter: Subverted. Conor carries a drunk, semi-conscious Mia into her room and puts a blanket over her in this trope's style — but not before taking her pants off, leaving her with only her underwear on beneath the waist. This scene colors every interaction between the two of them from that point forward.
  • Coming of Age Story: The film charts a period in the life of a teenage girl who goes through a roller coaster of experiences.
  • Country Matters: Used many, many times.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mia.
    [Mia is observing a bunch of girls dancing badly and scoffs at them]
    Girl dancing: What the fuck's your problem?
    Mia: Your terrible dancing's my problem!
  • Desperately Craves Affection: Mia has a very prickly nature, but her bravado and belligerence mask a deep need for meaningful human connection. Her mother is an abusive alcoholic, she doesn’t get along with her little sister, and she’s fallen out with her only female friend.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mia and Tyler's dad is not in the picture.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Mia, a face full of rage, stalks across the open space between apartment buildings to call a girl named Keeley a Gendered Insult.
  • Face Framed in Shadow:
    • The scene where Mia is showing off her dance moves for Conor is lit only by a single street light from the street below, leaving Conor's face half in shadow, contributing to the air of wrongness about the whole scene. Illegal sex follows.
    • This is also how Mia's face is framed in the scene in the nightclub, when she realizes that the dancer job she is auditioning for is to be an exotic dancer. She leaves.
  • Female Gaze: Mia's gaze, and consequently the camera, often lingers on Conor's body.
  • Foreshadowing: Once Conor's tattoo that says "Kelly" with a heart is revealed, it becomes obvious he has something to hide. Turns out he's married with a daughter.
  • Humans Are Bastards / Bad People Abuse Animals: Mia doesn’t along well with other people, but she has a soft spot for animals, particularly the malnourished horse tethered in a Traveller encampment. She unsuccessfully tries to free the horse and is devastated when she later learns the horse was euthanized.
  • Jitter Cam: Used in the first scene of the film as Mia marches between the buildings to scream at Keeley. Used again in a far darker context as Mia is in the process of kidnapping Conor's little daughter Keira.
  • Kitchen Sink Drama: The story is set in a working-class East London environment. Mia is very much an angry misfit and the film realistically depicts her bleak surroundings.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Both Conor and the folks at the dancing audition ask Mia to let her hair down. Both comment on how much prettier she is with it down. Both moments are very creepy.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Mia's friend Billy is hunting through a junkyard, looking for an engine part for a Volvo.
    Mia: What are you looking for?
    Billy: Looking for a Volvo 940.
    Mia: What's it look like?
    Billy: Like a Volvo 940.
    Mia: All right, clever dick.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Is there a fish tank in this movie? No. Are fish tanks even discussed in this movie? Also no. The title refers to the isolated world of Mia and her hopes of escaping a dreary environment with the better world always clearly visible but forever blocked by the invisible barriers of money, class and opportunity.
  • "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: Mia, crushed by the traumatic turn of events with Conor, and facing reform school, accepts Billy's invitation to go with him to Wales. We see the truck pulling away, then a shot of a helium balloon floating up above the towers into the sky, symbolizing Mia's escape.
  • Parental Substitute: Conor is the closest thing Mia and Tyler have to a potential father figure. Conor takes Joanne and the girls on a trip to the countryside and teaches Mia how to catch fish with her bare hands. He also encourages Mia’s dancing aspirations and lends her a camera so she can record a video for her dance audition.
  • Parental Neglect: Joanne holds wild alcohol-soaked parties in the apartment while the kids are home. She has sex at home, without even bothering to close the bedroom door. She's gleeful at the prospect of sending Mia off to board at a referral unit.note 
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Mercifully the camera cuts away, but Joanne's party was clearly devolving to an orgy, with her children still in the apartment confined to their rooms. Lots of people grinding sensually on each other. Mia is able to filch a bottle of vodka from the party because the man next to it is fingering a woman.
  • Primal Scene: Joanne doesn't close her bedroom door, which is why Mia sees her and Conor having sex.
  • Right Through the Wall: What brings on the Primal Scene, as Joanne is moaning very loudly, much to Mia's displeasure.
  • Shades of Conflict: Conor is a scumbag who deserves to go to jail for statutory rape. But having a stranger take your child away and nearly drown her in the river is also bad.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: The whole family, and really just about everybody in the council estates.
    Tyler: If I'm a fuckface, you're a cuntface!
  • Slice of Life: The film shows scenes of the daily goings-on at the council estate where Mia lives.
  • Sucks at Dancing: At the beginning of the film, Mia is observing Keeley and her new friend group doing a dance to the Cassie song "Me & U" in front of a group of appreciative neighborhood boys. Mia scoffs at the girls' performance, which is half-hearted and out-of-sync.
  • Troubled Teen: Mia is a juvenile delinquent who is prone to violent outbursts and has a drinking problem.
  • Undressing the Unconscious: Conor takes Mia's pants off when he's putting her to bed after she passes out drunk. He doesn't do anything else wrong at that moment, but the scene marks him off as a creep and foreshadows later events.
  • Use Your Head: When Mia confronts Keeley's friend group, she delivers a headbutt to one of the girls who insults her. This results in a broken nose for that girl.
  • We Used to Be Friends: The film opens with Mia leaving a voicemail apologizing to Keeley and asking her to call back. It's never explained what caused the rift between the two girls, but it's made clear they used to be good friends.