March 5, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Fish Tank' -- GRADE: A-

Review: 'Fish Tank' connects with difficult truths

Katie Jarvis plays a foul-mouthed, frustrated 15-year-old girl in the crackling and insightful "Fish Tank." (IFC Films)

Mia is mad most of the time.

At 15, she lives with her alcoholic, party-girl mother (Kierston Wareing) and foul-mouthed younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) in a down-and-out apartment building. Her only interest is dancing, which she practices in an empty apartment she's broken into. She has no friends -- in fact most of the local girls are her outright enemies.

When her mother brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), Mia spits out the usual resentment, but eventually succumbs to his easy charm. He encourages her dancing, and even though she can still turn vicious at the slightest provocation, she begins building an unlikely alliance with him.

As played by the remarkable Katie Jarvis -- an untrained actress who was supposedly discovered while in the midst of a public fight with her boyfriend -- Mia stands in for every miserable, resentful, intelligent child born to a life of neglect and wrong turns.

In some ways, "Fish Tank," the story of Mia's relationship with Connor and her family, is a British version of last year's "Precious." It can be hard to watch, and what little hope it offers needs to be sought out.

But writer-director Andrea Arnold, working in British lower-class realism, still finds wondrous moments of connection in Mia's life.

When she attempts to rescue a horse, when an act of revenge goes wrong, most devastatingly when Mia's family breaks into a sad dance of departure toward the movie's end, this film rings with harsh truth.

It's hard to watch, but then again it's hard not to watch. "Fish Tank" has no easy answers -- we all just swim around and around -- but man, does it have some good questions.