“Fish Tank” isn’t a movie a lot of people have heard about or would even typically see, but it offers a gritty portrayal of life that should not go unnoticed.

“Fish Tank”

At the State
IFC Films

Mia (newcomer Kate Jarvis) is a 15-year-old girl who dreams of being a hip-hop dancer, but the obstacles of her everyday life — getting kicked out of school, picking fights with other girls and sneaking alcohol — stand in the way. Her life has deteriorated and she spends most of her days wandering around the streets, the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over her eyes.

Jarvis delivers a searingly realistic performance. It’s not exactly a touching or emotional one, and it’s hard to really like her character, but that’s what makes it powerful. Jarvis makes Mia come across as an actual person. Perhaps what makes her character so distant is that it’s hard to know what’s really going on in her mind or in her world. Yet this is also the aspect that makes her so captivating — part of the film’s force lies in making the audience wait to see what her next move will be.

Life seems to get a bit brighter for Mia when her Mom’s boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender, “Inglourious Basterds”) enters the picture. He floats through life easily, makes Mia laugh and encourages her dancing, softening the harshness of her life. At the same time, he develops a relationship with Mia that soon causes their lives and the secrets within them to unravel.

Fassbender is outstanding in “Fish Tank.” He manages to combine aspects of both a father figure and a sexual predator in his character flawlessly and believably. It’s difficult to imagine a single person executing such opposite aspects in a way that’s not overdone. His portrayal of Connor adds just the right amount of menace to the story.

The strength of the plot and characters depends a lot on the setting of the film. The world they inhabit is one of shabby, squalid apartment buildings, graffiti and men in beer-stained t-shirts with their stomachs out. Their world is not a traditionally pretty one, but there are moments when the camera brings out little details like the way the birds are circling overhead, the way light comes through the car window or the way a balloon makes its way across the skyline. It’s in moments like these that Mia’s world seems to have the potential for beauty. But just as quickly as these images flit across the screen, that potential is swallowed up.

As a girl who aspires to be a hip-hop backup dancer, Mia spends a lot of her time with her headphones on, listening to her music. The music doesn’t act as merely a passive supplement to the film — it adds a valuable layer. In the last scene, Mia, her mother and her little sister are dancing together as a family. After all they have been through, it’s hard not to find the scene touching, but then the words of the song come through: “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

“Fish Tank” doesn’t try to have a large, overbearing message; it instead focuses on creating an authentic story in which nothing is forced. The film shifts beautifully and believably between both the light and the dark side of life.

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