2009’s Fish Tank, starring newbie Katie Jarvis is an undeniably assertive drama about the role that power and exploitation plays in a young woman’s life. The film’s 15 year old protagonist, Mia, opens the story by convening an admirable toughness as she strives to survive her abusive home in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of London. Ultimately, in the first moments of the film, there is a strong sense that Mia has a self-confidence that cannot be easily shaken. Yet the story quickly proceeds to challenge Mia repeatedly with sadly common situations that highlight areas of potential exploitation for young women.
At first, Mia strives to stay in control of herself despite the barrage of situations where those in power seek to exploit her. However, her situation is complicated when the line between unwanted and desired sexual advances is blurred by interest she faces from an older man. Here, the film truly insists on the cruel nature of an adult who would cross a sexual line with a much younger, vulnerable individual. In Mia’s case, her admirer is all the more selfish for convoluting her clear need for a strong parental figure by toying with her desire for affection and need to attract. When the man in question (a brilliantly despicable Michael Fassbender) finally and inevitably crosses the line between role model and sexual predator, it’s clear that the game he has playing the entire time is about power. The result dismantles Mia’s sense of self control and power, and almost pushes her to believe she lacks all power to make her own path through life, and that she will always be beholden to those with the power to exploit her.
However, Mia’s eventual triumph over this exploitation is not when she fights back against those in power, but when she experiences the appeal of using power to dominate another human being. After a childhood of being berated, Mia has an opportunity to do the same to a young girl. Fueled by her own anger, she begins to terrify the child, and for a moment, the audience understands her actions and even glimpses the satisfaction that dominating and hurting another person could bring someone in Mia’s position. However horrifying, Mia’s near abuse of a young girl is an outlet for the years of abuse and hatred she has endured at the hands of others.
At the very moment when Mia is faltering, and starting to give into the anger and hatred that has been bolstering all her life, she gets a taste of how those that exploit her have felt. She wades into the temptation that violence toward a little girl could help alleviate her own pain, and in this moment of temptation, Mia recognizes the value she still holds within. By momentarily giving into the torment she has experienced her whole life, she identifies a strength that those who have exploited her have lacked: she stops. In this moment, she decides to refute the idea that as a poverty-stricken young victim of abuse herself, she has to perpetuate that trend in her own life. Mia refuses to accept the devaluing imposed on her by peers, sexual predators, society, and even her own family. Mia’s choice takes great strength and signifies a manner in which cycles of abuse can halt with an individual’s decision.
Unfortunately Mia’s story cannot end on a note of her character’s personal success. The situations in which Mia faces exploitation by those in power are far too common and frequent. Mia exemplifies young individuals who are all too real: children who have lacked care and safe environments and instead face abuse and exploitation. While her choice is inspiring, Mia should never have to decide to fight against the powers that seek to dominate her, when those powers are the ones who should exist to protect her and young women like her in the first place.