Monday, January 18, 2010

"Fish Tank" and the Contradictions of Being 15

This weekend I had the opportunity to see a free preview screening of a movie called Fish Tank. (It opened to excellent reviews in NYC on Friday, but won't officially open in SF for another few weeks.) Mostly I went because last month I vowed to follow the career of Michael Fassbender, who plays the male lead, and deserves for big things to come his way. OK, I've got a bit of a crush on him. Very attractive man, and it's fair to point that out, because Fish Tank absolutely would not work if he were any less seductive--or any less skilled at playing a flawed and ambiguous character. First he allows the camera to objectify him, then he allows our feelings toward him to grow increasingly complex and uneasy. Another great interpretation.

Katie Jarvis, a first-time actress, plays the lead role of Mia, a teenager living in a housing project with her single mum and little sis. Jarvis' performance in this tricky role is strikingly powerful and direct. Mia is angry at the world, a troublemaker, a candidate for reform school, but she's also curious and tenacious. If someone just encouraged her to put those qualities to constructive use, she could really accomplish a lot. Too bad her mother is immature and spiteful, and she has no adult role models.

Enter Connor (Fassbender), Mum's latest boyfriend, and the first person to encourage Mia's passion for hip-hop dancing and treat her with solicitousness. But, as you can probably guess, there is a thin line between friendly solicitousness and something else that is all kinds of wrong--at least when the people involved are a neglected 15-year-old girl and a charming Irishman about twice her age. This section of the film moves at a slow burn; every little moment of physical contact, such as Mia's putting her hand on Connor's shoulder to steady herself while he bandages her injured ankle, is heightened with sexual tension.

Even though I had a very different upbringing than Mia, I think that Fish Tank gets at something universal about being a 15-year-old girl and receiving contradictory messages about sexuality. Girls mature faster than boys, so at 15, they tend not to be attracted to boys their own age--older guys are where it's at. And the media encourages this tendency, teaching us to think that handsome men get better with age, pairing forty-something leading men with twenty-something starlets. But, the media also tells us that if a teenage girl acts on her attraction to an older man, there's something wrong with her, she's a tramp, she's disturbed. We are taught to measure our worth by the quality and quantity of guys we can attract, then taught that if we attract too many guys, we're sluts.

For instance, I remember when I was in high school, a lot of my girlfriends became obsessed with Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. We were 16 or 17 years old, and Depp was 40, but we thought he was hot, and the media encouraged us to think he was hot. (And we didn't feel anything for Orlando Bloom, a somewhat more age-appropriate choice among the Pirates cast.) Yet, if, in real life, any of us had been attracted to a 40-year-old man, it would have been a Very Bad Thing. Heck, most of our parents would have freaked out if we'd wanted to date a 21-year-old.

These kinds of double standards can get a girl so mixed up that she makes some very bad choices. It's even worse for Mia, who has probably never seen a healthy adult relationship in real life, and whose ideas about beauty and love and sex have been shaped by too much TV. So, she's 15, she thinks she's tough, she doesn't know how naive she is, and her mum brings home a guy who looks like Michael Fassbender...

Basically, I love how Fish Tank doesn't shy away from the contradictions of being a 15-year-old girl. Given the plot, given Mia's floozy mum and her addiction to music videos, the temptation would be to make Mia a precociously sexual nymphet. But she's not: she wears gray sweatpants and wifebeater tank tops, and she's never had a boyfriend. Though she wants to be a hip-hop dancer, it's not because she associates dancing with sexuality--indeed, she is shocked when she finally makes that connection. The first scene of the film shows Mia cursing and head-butting another girl, then retreating to her room, which is decorated in demure, girlish pastel colors (it actually reminded me of my own teenage bedroom). So underneath her enraged, tough-talking exterior, Mia begins the movie as an innocent. And that's why what happens to her is so devastating.

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