Three years ago, British director Andrea Arnold's first film, "Red Road" was a highlight of PIFF for me and made it onto my top 10 list for the year. Her second film, "Fish Tank" (9.5), shows she is the genuine article. But be forewarned--hers is a bleak vision.
Andrew O'Hehir of Salon.com described the film as a cross between "Precious" (which I loved) and "An Education" (which I found facile) and he makes a good point. Like "Precious," it depicts a neglected teenager's life with brutal honesty. Fifteen-year-old Mia lives with her slatternly mother and volatile younger sister in a depressing housing project; what passes for communication between them consists entirely of insults, profanity, and slammed doors. Ostracized by her peers and seething with fury, she doesn't appear to attend school and, within the first few minutes of the film, taunts a group of girls, breaks one of their noses with a head-butt, and tries to free a pitiful-looking horse tethered to a concrete block until she is herself attacked by a group of boys. Constantly in motion, she seems unable to contain or understand her rage, calmed only by practicing dance moves to hip hop music in an abandoned space in her apartment building.
Her interest is piqued by her mother's new boyfriend, Connor, who quickly demonstrates an ability to break past her angry force field. He is calm and amused and interested in her. But in what way? You dare to hope for her sake that he could be a kind of father figure--but caring is mixed up with other things for her, and for him too. She doesn't know to be afraid--but we do.
The way in which the film handles that relationship is 100 times better than "An Education," which pretties up the situation too much and doesn't make psychological sense. Arnold knows how to traverse difficult emotional terrain; she is prepared to (and does) make you uncomfortable but not just because she can. Through a combination of close observation and subtle metaphor (watch for a scene in which Connor takes the family for a drive and shows Mia how to catch a fish with her bare hands), Arnold conveys complexities other films can't even touch.
The fishing scene shows Mia's fearlessness and also her vulnerability; Connor comments on how the fish are too stupid to be afraid, and Mia leaves the scene with a minor injury that doesn't deter her interest. She is young, but more than that, her world has deadened her self-protective instincts. She gives danger as little quarter as she gives everything else, never really sensing what easy pickings she is.
I also especially liked the final scenes between Mia and her mother and sister. It's a believable moment of connectedness, but not tidy, the three of them being as awake as they ever are. I will be thinking of this film for some time--and it is scheduled to play again soon at Cinema 21, for any Portlanders who'd like to see it on the big screen.
I wasn't so taken with "Mother" (4), the latest from the Korean director of "The Host," which I enjoyed a few years ago. Bong Joon-Ho displays similar inventiveness here with a tale of a mother's determined efforts to vindicate her mentally disabled son, who has been wrongly accused of a brutal murder. The mother, portrayed by an actress quite famous to Korean audiences, is intriguing--tough, relentless, and capable of handling all of the dark surprises she uncovers underneath the placid surface of her provincial town. But though I admired Bong's imaginative ideas, I couldn't find anyone to care about--the son was annoying and not well-played, and the extremes of the other characters held me a distance. Even the mother, as intriguing as she was, ultimately annoyed me. I can imagine that some will find the odd vibe of this film more enjoyable than I did--it appears so from the criticism I've seen.