Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a cauldron of teen-girl sullenness and yearning in the vivid British drama Fish Tank we can't take our eyes off her, even if her anger is familiar to audiences of the subgenre of cinematic realism classified as British miserablism. A 15-year-old loner who doesn't play well with others, Mia lives in a crappy U.K. housing project with her aggressive kid sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and her boozy, slutty mother (Kierston Wareing), and secretly breaks into an abandoned apartment to practice hip-hop dance moves; she's a poster girl for the depression of underbelly England. So the sudden appearance of a sexy man in her mother's life is as unnerving as it is exciting. Connor (Inglourious Basterds' seductive Michael Fassbender, first admired in glorious shirtlessness) turns on a dangerously live switch in a girl who doesn't yet understand her own wiring.
Such a premise and such a tight, hand-held, close-up study of an inarticulate young woman trapped by the luck of life's bad draw might skitter toward have-not cliché. But writer-director Andrea Arnold (Red Road), an astute chronicler of lower-class turf, mostly steers clear of the expected, especially with the remarkable Jarvis in the lead, a non-pro who was 17 when the movie was shot. A local girl from the same blighted Essex neighborhood where the film is set (as is the excellent Wareing, who also starred in leading miserablist Ken Loach's It's a Free World), the amazingly natural first-timer was discovered, in a gift of publicity-ready truth, while having an argument with her boyfriend at a train station. Word is, she didn't even dance, and was shy to do so on camera. In freeing her young star's physicality in Fish Tank, Arnold also demonstrates one way a girl might learn to swim up and out. (Available on cable via on demand starting Jan. 27) A-