Hard to tell villains from heroes in 'Fish'

The most honored British film of 2010 is Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," and rightly so. The Cannes Jury Prize winner is an intimate look at teen alienation and first love in an English tenement.

Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a scrappy 15-year-old living with her young, neglectful single mom and foul-mouthed little sister, a family unit where “I hate you” is a tender emotional exchange. Mom’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender, unrecognizable as the suave spy from “Inglourious Basterds”) looks as if he might be a positive influence. He treats everyone tenderly and encourages Mia to follow her dream of being a dancer. Director Arnold plays their evolving relationship for every ounce of suspense as the hormonal girl and the ruggedly handsome newcomer move from friendship into more treacherous waters.

The characters are guarded, and as we come to understand them scene by scene, they become ever harder to sort into convenient categories of hero and villain. Mia is a delinquent in the making; with love and attention, she softens, but that vulnerability comes at a cost.

The film is a strong addition to the English filmmaking tradition of welfare-class humanist melancholy where the state of the dishes in the kitchen sink tells us all we need to know about the emotional arc of the characters. Arnold gives us reason to hope that once Mia escapes the fish tank of her shabby council flat, she will learn to swim in open water, but she provides no guarantees.