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‘Fish Tank’ gives newcomer Katie Jarvis room to grow

As the British film “Fish Tank” opens, a scrappy teenage girl named Mia whips around her low-income English apartment block. She leaves an angry voice mail for her friend, argues with a girl’s father, yells at her mother and younger sister and picks fights with a group of boys and a separate bunch of girls.

And then she dances. Alone in an abandoned apartment, she finds her freedom, moving with a grace and muscular authority that might otherwise never find expression. After her mother’s new boyfriend takes an extra interest in her, encouraging and supporting her in ways no one has before, she begins to mature and transform.

Written and directed by Oscar winner Andrea Arnold, “Fish Tank” is equal parts raw realism and lyrical expressiveness, bringing together the urban grit of “Precious” and the age-imbalanced coming-of-age story of “An Education” with a dash of the dynamism of the original “Fame.”

It premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the Jury Prize, just as Arnold’s previous film, “Red Road,” did in 2006. It also won two prizes at the British Independent Film Awards and shared the New Lights award at the AFI Fest in L.A. It screens Monday at UCLA, will be available on cable video-on-demand on Jan. 27 and opens in New York on Friday and L.A. and Boston on Jan. 29

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At the center of “Fish Tank” is newcomer Katie Jarvis, who was 17 at the time of filming and is now 18. Though she is eager to point out the ways in which she is not like Mia -- Jarvis’ parents are divorced, but her family life was much more stable -- she was an unemployed dropout before the film.

Jarvis, who had never acted before, was discovered when a casting agent saw her arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform in Essex, where she is from and the film is set.

“At that moment I didn’t actually believe it was all true,” Jarvis recalled of the casting agent’s initial pitch for the project. “I thought, ‘This is unreal. This can’t be happening to me.’ She asked for my number, but I said no, and she gave me her card. And I don’t know what it was, but about three or four days later something made me pick up the phone and call her back.”

Arnold was glad Jarvis did. “When she came along to the audition, I remember her poking her head around the door and grinning,” the filmmaker noted via e-mail. “I liked her straightaway.”

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Besides casting an unknown, untrained performer in the lead role, Arnold wanted to make the film in an unusual way, by showing the script to the cast as little in advance as possible. The film was shot over six weeks in summer 2008, and Arnold initially wanted to give the actors the pages day by day, but relented to costar Michael Fassbender’s wanting the next week’s pages each Friday.

“Every time I get the chance to make a film, I want to learn, try something new and see what happens, explore different ways of working,” said Arnold, who won an Academy Award for her short film “Wasp” in 2004. “I wondered if this way of working might help the actors find innocence in their interactions with each other. We don’t know as people what will happen to us tomorrow, and we behave innocently as a result. I was looking for that.”

In addition, Arnold felt this method, which she had not used previously, might level the playing field between experienced actors such as Fassbender and Kierston Wareing, who plays Mia’s mother, and the unschooled Jarvis.

“I thought it would be more manageable and easier for her to go on a genuine journey and know where she was,” Arnold said. “I think it worked beautifully for Katie. You can see her grow and change throughout the film.”

Besides being an explosive debut for Jarvis, the film provides a showcase for Fassbender. Though American audiences may know the actor as a warrior in “300,” a starving prisoner in “Hunger” and a debonair film critic-turned-commando in “Inglourious Basterds,” for many this will be the first time seeing Fassbender as a contemporary character. From the moment he appears in Mia’s kitchen one morning, shirtless from a night with her mother, Fassbender’s character has a mix of charm and danger, fatherly kindness and roguish sex appeal, that makes him imminently watchable.

“Most of acting is an instinctive process anyway,” Fassbender said of working with Jarvis. “I think acting is common sense really, asking ‘What happened similar to me and how did I feel?’ Katie just has a real truth and honesty and reality in her that she brought every day on set. And full credit to Andrea, who nurtured her and made her believe in herself and allowed Katie to really open up.”

When the film premiered in Cannes, Jarvis had just given birth to her first child a few days before. Though she missed the film’s screenings and news conference, she was able to attend the award ceremony.

“When we finished ‘Fish Tank,’ I still didn’t realize in my heart and my head just how serious it was all going to be,” said Jarvis, who has since appeared in a short film for British television and hopes to continue acting. “I think it was only when the film was first screened in Cannes that it started to kick in and I started to realize exactly what it was all about.

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“When it got such a good response in Cannes, such good reviews, I was so glad for myself, that I’d achieved something like that, and I was so glad for Andrea because she took such a big risk on me. I was a bit worried about what the papers might say, but, touch wood, everyone’s been amazing. I’ve been lucky. The film has completely helped me. It’s completely turned my life around.”

calendar@latimes.com


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