Female Trouble

Fish Tank, dir. Andrea Arnold, now playing
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, dir. Lee Daniels, now playing

Anxieties about “poverty porn,” about the exploitation of the vulnerable for the entertainment of the rest of us, arise only when we’re watching something that makes us feel guilty. The spectacle of Slumdog Millionaire’s Mumbai urchins evoked real discomfort because the extremity of suffering it depicted implicated anyone who benefits from Third World poverty, which is to say, all of us. At the same time, the movie’s unabashed artifice—not only its wacky Bollywood ending, but its cleverness and big-budget glossiness throughout—highlighted the painful disparity between the characters’ all-too-true-to-life misery and the audience’s pleasure in watching them.

Let’s turn now to two newer movies about impoverished children. Both center on youngsters of the underclass who are abused by their mothers, preyed on by other adults, and treated as expendable by the agencies designed to protect them. It’s a story that’s older than Oliver Twist and it depends on details of character and setting to make it fresh—a challenge both these films rise to, each in its own way.

One, Precious, tells the story of an obese African-American teen; the other, Fish Tank, of a skinny white British girl. And though Fish Tank takes a harder line on its main character and is far more sexually explicit, I’m pretty certain it will not face anywhere near the volume of criticism about exploitation and voyeurism that has greeted Precious.

A new kind of star: Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. Photo credit: Anne Marie Fox. © Lions Gate Entertainment.

One reason is that as a society we feel a lot more guilt (and its corollary, fear) toward poor African-Americans than we do toward impoverished Anglos, and we’re more alarmed by fatness than entrenched poverty. Another is that where Precious uses shiny production values and over-the-top theatrics, Fish Tank adheres to the cinematic convention of showing poor people in documentary-realist style. The film’s grittiness reassures us that it’s taking its subjects seriously, that no one’s having too good a time—the visual equivalent of the solemnity a newscaster switches on when she turns from the sports scores to a report on a multiple-fatality car wreck. All this makes Fish Tank less vulnerable to reproach than Precious, but not nearly as much fun.

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank tells the story of 15-year-old Mia, who lives in a slummy glass-fronted housing project—the fish tank of the title—in a blighted suburb east of London. She’s played by Katie Jarvis, a local girl with no previous acting experience who beautifully conveys Mia’s fury, vulnerability, and desperation.

Mia’s father is long gone and her mother (played by Kierston Wareing) is a hard-drinking party girl to whom Mia is mostly a drag, an impediment to having whatever good times life still offers. And Mia isn’t easy to love. Her neediness and anger have made her a bit of a sociopath, someone who criticizes another girl’s dance moves by head-butting her and breaking her nose. But that’s because dancing is important: Mia skips school to sneak into an empty apartment and spend hours practicing hip-hop moves, dreaming that this will somehow vault her into a different life, one with at least the tiniest chance of escape.

Her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor, gives Mia something else to dream about. As played by Michael Fassbender, he’s a hottie—the movie’s first glimpse of him, shirtless in low-slung jeans, provides a sizzling demonstration of the female gaze—but he’s also sweetly paternal toward Mia and her little sister, a fatherless adolescent’s oedipal wet dream. When Mia shows him an ad seeking dancers, he encourages her to try out. “You dance like a black,” he tells her, then adds, “That’s a compliment.” No wonder the girl is smitten.

Not so innocent: Katie Jarvis as Mia in Fish Tank. Photo credit: Holly Horner. © IFC Films.

Mia indulges in a lot of risk-taking, and that includes deliberately fanning the sexual sparks that flicker between her and Connor. We spend much of the movie dreading what the characters are going to do next, and to Fish Tank’s credit we’re often surprised both by their bad choices and their good ones, even though their actions and the consequences remain entirely credible and in character. When Mia finally gets to her dance audition, we witness the opposite of a Fame-style triumph; it’s the moment when she realizes how thoroughly she’s been betrayed.

In the end, the movie acknowledges Mia’s life force but holds out only a tiny scrap of hope for her. She may find her way, but a future of alcoholism and petty crime seems more likely. The movie’s final image distills that ambiguity: a heart-shaped foil balloon drifts above Mia’s neighborhood, but will it fly away or fall to earth as just another piece of trash?

In her 2007 feature debut, Red Road, writer-director Arnold showed she could pull terrific performances out of her actors and discover an abundance of visual poetry in the urban wasteland. Those same talents are on full display in Fish Tank, which has many high-art moments as beautiful as its characters’ circumstances are ugly. But the movie’s insistent humility, its sociological seriousness, and self-conscious miserabilism, render the story-telling a bit prim.

Precious has none of that eat-your-spinach quality. As befits a movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, those billionaire impresarios of heartstring-twanging uplift, it turns gritty realities into raw material for a fairy tale filled with heroes and villains, suffering and redemption. If Fish Tank is a sometimes austere chamber work, Precious is a grand opera full of hummable tunes.

Precious likewise stars a first-time actor from the mean streets of the movie’s setting: Gabourey Sidibe, who in her dark vastness is radically unlike any other female star of a major American picture. She plays the eponymous Precious, an illiterate, beaten-down 15-year-old pregnant with her second child, which is, like her first, the result of being raped by her now absent father. Her mother (played by Mo’Nique) collects welfare (the movie is set in 1987), watches game shows, seethes with jealousy, and seizes on every opportunity to bash her daughter around.

Unlike Mia, who brings many of her troubles on herself, Precious is truly blameless, as befits the heroine of a fantasy. She retreats from the unbearable facts of her life into comi-tragic reveries, shown in brilliant saturated colors, in which she’s a movie diva, a recording star, or a slender blonde. But a real-world escape hatch opens up when a sympathetic teacher at her new school sees through the girl’s defensive sullenness and helps her learn to read, write, and see herself and her children as worth saving.

All of which sounds like the proverbial after-school special with cussin’, which is what Precious would amount to if it had more conventional stars, less boisterous humor, and a squarer style. But instead of sticking with downbeat dispassion, director Lee Daniels pitches everything about Precious to the rear balcony. The girl’s home life—the greasy food, the sexual abuse, her mother’s pimpled cheek and hairy armpits—is catalogued with voluptuous disgust. Her fantastical imaginings are played as high camp, and the raucous support she gets from her new schoolmates as high comedy. When Precious innocently—she’s always innocent—explains that her older child, who has Down’s Syndrome, is named Mongo, we know this is a movie that’s not afraid to take risks.

Moreover, Sidibe is a riveting presence, because of her monumental looks and the subtle way she uses her bulky body and broad, brooding face to reveal the helplessness and yearning that lie beneath her character’s almost catatonic passivity. And Mo’Nique’s barn-burning performance is justly famous: her climactic monologue may not be something that would ever happen in real life, but it thrums with psychological truth and dramatic electricity. It’s a must-see tour de force. And nothing like it would be possible in a movie that was more polite and less unapologetically, gloriously entertaining.

More Articles by the Author

Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.