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The otherworldly terrain of Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" was shot in Essex and several boroughs outside of London (IMDb lists Barking, Havering and Tower Hamlets among them) and these landscapes -- variously industrial, suburban, undeveloped -- look as chilly and otherworldly as anything in Antonioni. Only shabbier. It took me all year to get around to seeing "Fish Tank," but as an admirer of Arnold's nightmarish 2006 "Red Road," I'm not terribly surprised to discover that it's one of the most vividly directed US releases of the year. And I say that even though it consists almost entirely of hand-held camerawork (which is not a style I generally appreciate). Through Arnold's lens, this slice of soggy Britain takes on the surreal look of a dream, or science fiction.

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The film follows (literally, much of the time) 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), who lives in a run-down apartment complex with her thirtysomething party-girl mum and bratty younger sister. Mia is headstrong, abrasive, foul-mouthed (did I mention she's 15?) and always seems to be storming off, exiting one situation and headed somewhere with a purpose in mind -- though we rarely know what it is until she gets there. Sometimes she's not so sure herself, even after she appears to get where she's going. Her refuge is an empty flat in one of the apartment towers where she surreptitiously practices hip-hop dance routines.

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I'm not going to say much more about the story, except that I think "Fish Tank" would make a fine double-bill with "Winter's Bone," as they're both movies about teenage girls looking for their daddies, as it were. In Mia's case, though, it's not her father -- it's her mum's new Irish boyfriend (Michael "Hunger" Fassbender), and her desires are no more familial than his are parental.

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The northern sunlight is devoid of warmth, and Arnold shoots with a shallow depth of field, giving the impression that, even in exteriors filmed in mid-afternoon, there isn't enough light to allow the foreground and the background to remain in focus at the same time. (Which is an appropriate technique for a movie that inhabits the myopic consciousness of a teenager.) "Fish Tank" joins the ranks of the most richly textured weather pictures of 2010 (including "Sweetgrass," "The Ghost Writer," "Winter's Bone," "True Grit," "Vincere," "Let Me In"...), an exceptionally wintery year at the movies.

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Please look at these frame grabs, which aren't arranged in chronological order, as a kind of mini-photo essay on motifs from "Fish Tank." Once I got started I kept thinking of more striking, atmospheric images I wanted to capture, so there are quite a few. NOTE: If you haven't seen the movie, you might not want to scroll all the way down (stop at the fish) to avoid seeing some images of a dramatic development that won't mean anything to you until you do see it....

The Criterion Collection will be releasing "Fish Tank" on DVD and Blu-ray later in the month (February 22, 2011).

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