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 cliche. 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-.