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Tuesday, February 23,2010

'Fish Tank' deserves awards its winning

By Cary Darling

Mia is a girl on her way to a serious date with trouble.

In the very first few minutes she's on the screen in "Fish Tank," writer/director Andrea Arnold's frank and powerful glimpse of a dead-end British teenage life, she's screaming on the phone to a friend, head-butts another girl because she doesn't like the way she's dancing, and gets into a tussle with her struggling, drunken, emotionally unavailable single mom. "The Waltons" it's not.

Yet, as portrayed by Katie Jarvis, who's in nearly every scene, Mia is compulsively watchable and unforgettable. And she would be utterly depressing, too, if not for the faint ray of light provided by hip-hop dance, the one thing that seems to spark some flicker of pleasure in her otherwise dreary life.

Well, that, and her mom's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, "Hunger"), with whom she shares a love of African-American music though his tastes run more to vintage Bobby Womack whereas hers are closer to the rapper Nas. But they tread dangerous ground as they become closer, all set against the backdrop of bleak high-rise housing projects and a suffocating sense of hopelessness.

While it might be criticized for utilizing predictable elements — broken home, abusive mom, rudderless teens — it fashions them together with a commanding sense of urgency. Although some have compared it to "Precious" for obvious reasons, Arnold shows off a far grittier style, making "Fish Tank" feel closer to a documentary.

Jarvis, in her debut after reportedly being discovered arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform, is absolutely riveting. And the stellar soundtrack, featuring old R&B and contemporary hip-hop, becomes an integral part of the production's roughhewn texture, never seeming extraneous.

The movie has won a theater full of awards overseas, including Outstanding British Film at the BAFTA Film Awards recently and the Jury Prize at Cannes. "Fish Tank" deserves to do equally as well on this side of the pond.

Fish Tank

5 stars

Unrated (strong language, sex, children in peril); 123 min.

(c) 2010, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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