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Fish Tank (15)

A quirky drama finds unexpected poetry in the Essex badlands

Andrea Arnold's Red Road, a revenge thriller set on a Glasgow housing estate, was an exceptional debut, but it created an unusual challenge for its writer-director: when you have squeezed poetry from such a prosaic, unforgiving setting, where can you go next that would not resemble Versailles in comparison? Arnold has found the answer in Fish Tank. And to think some people say that Essex is good for nothing.

This corner of that disparaged county was immortalised by Billy Bragg in "A13, Trunk Road to the Sea". Yet it's the land that cinema forgot - a sweep of concrete and water, with unexpected marshy pockets, presided over by rows of pylons. Robbie Ryan's camera seems palpably curious, even excited, about what it might find on the estate where 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing). There is a listless chorus line of dancing girls, and a Mickey Mouse shadow that turns out to belong to a boy whose afro is sculpted like topiary.

Arnold lends the place the jumping-bean energy of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing - it throbs with the same sultry, ceaseless bassline, and Mia's hip-hop moves recall Rosie Perez's frenetic routine at the start of that movie. The question, when Joanne's latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), prowls into the kitchen one morning, is whether Mia will resist doing the wrong thing.

To unravel sexual tensions between an adult and an adolescent is to risk being prurient or alarmist (or both, in the case of those suffering from Larry Clark syndrome). Arnold wisely takes a cue from Catherine Breillat's À ma soeur!, playing the infatuation from the junior party's perspective. The images of Connor viewed through Mia's eyes make you realise how strongly the “male gaze", a term beloved by film theorists, still informs what we see on screen. A simple shot of the seat of Connor's jeans, ogled by Mia as he climbs the stairs, feels positively transgressive.

Red Road portrayed a feral world where distinctions between the species were academic. Fish Tank continues that idea: Mia proves in one scene that she is not yet housebroken, and the non-human cast includes a dog called Tennents and a carp that meets a sticky end, as well as some symbolic nonsense involving a tethered horse that Mia tries to liberate. Arnold is interested chiefly in a different kind of blurring, where youthful attention-seeking shades into adult desire, and she excels at dramatising the confusion that arises there. Competing with both her kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and her mother for Connor's attention, Mia is forced to play helpless child and alluring temptress - a woman in control of her body, but not ready to forsake her pyjama bottoms decorated with tiny strawberries.

She is not alone in her generational crisis. Even as Mia struggles to evoke a maturity she has not yet acquired, Joanne is passing her in the opposite direction, scraping her hair into playground pigtails and earning a reprimand from Tyler for dancing half-naked in the kitchen. "Look at yourself, tramp!" says the child, easily the wisest character here, sneering at her mother.

Fish Tank is unequivocally in thrall to Mia, sometimes to its detriment. Its most obvious influences, the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, at least acknowledged that not everything their working-class heroines did could be interpreted as an emblem of indefatigable strength. But Jarvis, who has never acted before, is incapable of a bogus moment. It is common knowledge that she landed this break after she was overheard remonstrating with her boyfriend on a station platform, which, to the best of my recollection, is not the way it all began for Audrey Hepburn. By the end of the film, I felt certain I would not want to meet Mia down a dark alley, but Fish Tank does the most anyone couldask for in rendering her desperate or unfamiliar life less remote.

The film reserves neither pity nor horror for its milieu - where even knowing the word "milieu" could earn you a split lip - and for its characters, the sort of people who usually make it on to our screens only in exposés of poor dietary habits or support for the BNP. Arnold convinces us that they suffer the same as anyone else; they just happen to do it in a place where the cultural Mecca is the Circus Tavern, Purfleet.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?