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Hitting screens a few months after the hype surrounding gritty US hit Precious, which focused on adolescent misery in inner-city life, it’s easy to understand why viewers may cringe at the plot of director Andrea Arnold’s second film. Set amongst the peeling walls of British housing estate, violent, erratic adolescent Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds her life complicated when her alcoholic mother brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), who displays a paternal, borderline sexual, interest in Mia. But this film is so much more than a series of depressing events in the life of a luckless girl. Arnold’s slow-paced, mockumentary-style transports the viewer directly into Mia’s ‘fishtank’, while close-up shots are so intimate that the viewer shifts uncomfortably in awkward moments, such as when Mia shyly performs her hip-hop routine for her mother’s new man. Set in summer, sunlight trickles in through the window, allowing Arnold to capture life in the working class burbs without rendering it either gloomy, or sentimental.
It makes sense that Jarvis, an untrained actress who was reportedly cast after a casting director overheard her cockney accent as she argued with a boyfriend, is every inch believable as the troubled teen decked out in hoop earrings and trackpants. She delivers a standout performance, capturing Mia’s vulnerability and eliciting sympathy even as the plot takes increasingly sinister turns. It’s the open, honest performances, particularly by Jarvis, which make for a realistic and deeply involving film. (LRu)