Need to See: Fish Tank

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Director Andrea Arnold's fearless coming-of-age story, Fish Tank, catapults her into the slender ranks of brilliant filmmakers who happen to be women, like Jane Campion and The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow. Um, Andrea who? The 48-year-old British wonder is already an awards magnet with a Best Short Film Oscar (in 2005) and a Jury Prize at Cannes—impressive, given her minuscule budgets and megastar-free flicks, like 2006's Red Road, a Netflix must. With this month's Fish Tank, her sophomore feature, she's finally on the verge of her breakout moment.

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Arnold's heroine, 15-year-old Mia (mesmerizing newcomer Katie Jarvis), is still girlish enough to love huge hoop earrings, yet tough enough to head-butt a girl who insults her. Trapped in a housing project outside London, she lives with her sweet little sister and—let's be blunt—slutty young Mum. (Think Gilmore Girls: The Dark Side.) When her mother brings home drop-dead sexy Connor (the charismatic Michael Fassbender from Hunger), the one-night stand moves in, and we instantly wonder if he and Mia will cross the line from friendly to dangerously flirty.

With piercing realism shaped by stunning visuals, Arnold artfully builds a sense of dread into ordinary situations. There is nothing overtly icky about the way Connor looks at Mia, but still, something feels off. He encourages her audition to become a hip-hop club dancer—but does the flier she brings home seeking "female dancers" seem more sleazy than confidence-boosting? When Mia break-dances in a bare room or pops in earbuds to glide around silently, her dancing is both an escape from her bleak prospects and an expression of the sexual tension she and Connor can't avoid forever.

Mia's growing obsession with him soon spirals into life-threatening drama, and, as is typical of Arnold's subjects, her biggest threat comes from her own volatile emotions combined with the gritty perils of the real world. In Red Road, a woman whose husband and daughter have died in a car crash stalks the driver who killed them, risking her own sanity. Included on the Red Road DVD is also Arnold's harrowing short Wasp, where a single mother leaves four tiny kids in a pub's parking lot while she goes on a date. Arnold's movies are far from cheery, but their grimy beauty leaves us breathless with the relief of near escape.

February, when Hollywood takes a breather between Oscar bait and splashy summer flicks, is just the time to discover this under-the-radar treasure.

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