Fifteen-year-old Mia (Kate Jarvis) is friendless, and lives with her uncaring single mom in a grubby public-housing project in some drab English town. Her only pleasure is the hip-hop dancing she performs in secret. At least until her mum's new boyfriend, Connor (Hunger's Michael Fassbender), catches her at it, and offers encouragement. Connor is the catalyst in Mia's otherwise static life, and much of the film's tension derives from their relationship: Is Connor simply a sympathetic father figure, or is his interest in Mia, with her awkward budding sexuality, dangerous?
Writer-director Andrea Arnold, who made the searing Red Road and won an Oscar for her similarly themed short film "Wasp," delivers an unflinching, unsentimental depiction of a miserable adolescence; Mia's is another unseen life in soulless place of intergenerational poverty and neglect. (This is Precious or Thirteen without the sheen of Hollywood or its stars.) Newcomer Jarvis is compelling as Mia, whose hard exterior is broken only by frequent free-floating rage. Yet from the outset, Jarvis lets us palpably feel Mia's unhappiness, her vulnerability and the various betrayals that mark her short life. And it's that connection that makes watching Fish Tank a tough, but ultimately rewarding, experience. Starts Fri., March 26. Harris