Art is a conceit and cinema doubly so. For all the demands for greater realism and protestations that one is producing cinema verite, the director can never hope to capture reality itself on film. If a director is holding up a mirror to the real world with the help of actors, camera crews and sound technicians then the distortions are so great that, in a sense, the director might as well be making a super hero film for all the truth that he has managed to capture on film. The very artificiality of artistic endeavour means that it is forever on an ontologically slippery slope. Indeed, consider the evolution of forms of story-telling such as the three act structure or the buildungsroman. These evolved in order to communicate certain kinds of truths but all too often the demands of the form come to dominate to desire to communicate truth. Real life seldom fits into a three act structure. What started off as abstraction from reality quickly becomes obfuscation of it as the cinema begins to create its own fictional worlds. Simplified parodies of the real world. Childish facsimiles in which the good guys always win and the cute couple always wind up together. These forms can then solidify into genres, traditions of stories that follow the same rules or which evolve with the rules in mind. The original truths behind the rules and the forms long since ignored and abandoned.
Because of this tendency to confuse the cause with the effect, discerning audiences have come to value ambiguity in their stories. Ambiguity that fills a space normally reserved for boldly fraudulent declarations of how the world works. Ferocious defences of the natural order of purely literary universes. This deliberate ambiguity is seen as a sign of intelligence as it is a reminder that there is a universe outside of the artistic, the traditional and the conceptual. A universe more complex and more intriguing than could ever be captured by a single piece of art.
Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is a film that has internalised this understanding of the nature of art. Ostensibly a formulaic coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence story, its strength comes from a willingness to explore not only the ambiguities within the characters, but also within our perceptions of those characters.