January, like August, is usually a serendipitous month for moviegoers who get their kicks poking around neighborhood movie houses looking for the odd and overlooked little orphans that always seem to wash ashore at the end of the big-money season. These are the films that rush in to plug the holes in plex programming or, better yet, never play the plexes at all. The ones you’ll be able to keep in your own private stash. Films like Fish Tank and Storm.
Mia Williams (played by Katie Jarvis), the fifteen-year-old lead character of Fish Tank, doesn’t appear to have a friend in the world. Slim and wiry, with abused but delicate features, dressed in cheap athletic gear with her dark hair hastily cropped, Mia gives the appearance of a young woman who would “clean up” just fine — but she has no intention of changing her grooming habits or doing any other favors for those around her. She’s glamorous as only a poor girl can be, a rose blooming on a manure pile.
Skittering around the depressing high-rise council flats near Tilbury in the county of Essex, east of London, where she lives with her similarly vexed mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) — a place of hip-hop and pit bulls and ale at any hour of the day — Mia clashes noisily with everyone she meets, from break-dancing teenagers to a family of young guys who keep a horse tethered outside their trailer. She’s the odd girl out, the un-Precious.
Mia’s latter-day kitchen-sink sphere of existence is the stuff of countless dramas about the foibles of the English lower classes, but writer-director Andrea Arnold obviously sees new and undiscovered narratives where so many have trod before. Former TV actor Arnold and her nonprofessional female lead take what might have been a festival of self-loathing and neglect and steer it into rarer, more unfamiliar turf using the power of personality.
Bored and contemptuous of her surroundings, Mia never ventures far from home until she spies a “Female Dancer Wanted” flier. Grim as the prospects may be — essentially it’s a club looking for strippers — the prospective gig appeals to her talent for movement. At last, something she can aspire to. The alternative is sitting in front of the TV for hours like smart-mouthed little Tyler, or mellowing into a slack slut like her mother, awash in alcohol and cigarettes. Mia is accustomed to nonstop sexual threats from every angle, but her mom’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is something new. Lean and muscular, like a combo of Jeremy Irons and a young Ryan O’Neal, the affable security guard openly flirts with Mia. It’s only a matter of time until they tumble.
But ultimately there’s Mia’s self-awareness and attitude to deal with, keyed to Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreamin’.” Absolutely no fakey uplift in Mia’s coming of age. The through-stories for Mia, Tyler, their mother, and Connor probably don’t amount to a hill of beans, not even when the “second chance” destination of Cardiff, Wales, is factored in. But there’s always hope, at least as long as Mia keeps her moves and her looks.
In the starring role, first-timer Jarvis could not be improved upon — she’s the ideal synthesis of adolescent desire and contempt. Irish-bred, German-native actor Fassbender turns in a crafty piece of work as Connor, the moonlighting lover. We’re never quite sure what’s going through his mind, other than that he’s dick-deep in females most of the time. Reverse the genders of that equation for Mia’s frowsy mom Joanne — as played by 32-year-old English actor Wareing, she’s a study in arrested development, the perpetual hot teenybopper. The one character who appears to have an absolutely clear view of the state of things is li’l sis Tyler, played by another debutante, young Ms. Griffiths. Check back with her in five or six years for Fish Tank II: The Squealquel.
For further proof that Europeans experience life differently than Americans, we submit Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm. In less perceptive hands, the story of a prosecutor from the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague (played by New Zealand actor Kerry Fox, from An Angel at My Table) doggedly hunting down a key witness (Anamaria Marinca) to a war crime committed in the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s, would involve squads of goonish hit men, a car chase or two, and a hail of bullets.
But German director Schmid, who wrote the screenplay with Bernd Lange, opts for a chillier, less demonstrative, ultimately more penetrating scenario: A former general in the Serbian rebel forces has been arrested in Spain and accused of deporting, raping, and killing Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo during the war. The main eyewitness proves unreliable, so the UN prosecutor in charge of the investigation, Hannah Maynard (Fox), goes to the witness’ sister, Mira Arendt (Marinca), now living in Germany with her German husband and child. Hannah wants Mira to testify, but Mira is terrified, after all these years, that the Serbs are still watching her. The delays cause the prosecutor’s competency to be called into question.
Hannah and Mira’s moral dilemma mushrooms into multiple unsavory ironies. The locals back in Sarajevo don’t want Westerners coming in, asking questions, digging up the past, starting official investigations. A Srpska Republic official, seeking to placate Hannah, admits: “There are powers in our country that are not under our control.” Meanwhile, Hannah’s UN bosses are pushing for speedy resolution to all cases, citing budget.
The context is more interesting than the mechanism of the case. No one really trusts the UN to be able to control anything — it just doesn’t have the power. And yet, ultimately, the UN and the EU can impose sanctions on “criminal governments.” Bosnian Serbs hold all sorts of dreadful people as heroes, but the Serbs are at a disadvantage. If they want to be admitted into the EU club, they must heel to a Western sense of justice. To Hannah’s superior (English actor Stephen Dillane), the Bosnian war crimes are old business that needs to be concluded quickly.
Is Hannah’s conscience being sold out by the UN with its “stitch-up” sense of justice? And what about Mira, who agrees to testify but runs up against the UN’s lack of will? Nothing is easy, cut and dried, the ironically titled Storm tells us. As in Fish Tank, no white knight rides in to save the day. And life must go on.