By Francine Schwartz

Slice of life and riveting, Fish Tank takes you inside the grim life of a girl who lives in a rough housing project in England’s Essex. It’s a reality show—but not the kind you see on TV. This kind is the real stuff. And it’s poetry. Beautiful. Gritty. And incredibly sexy.

Not unlike a fish tank where the creatures that swim around can see out, but are trapped within, the housing project is inhabited by people with disenchanted lives—girls who swear with the same rapid-fire fluidity as their moms and dream only of performing on rock videos, young men who emulate rap stars and two-bit criminals, their parents trapped in the confines of lost dreams or continuing delusions.

Mia (Katie Jarvis) is 15, finds escape from the drab, trapped existence she leads by dancing to hip-hop tunes and drinking booze whenever she can get her hands on it. She’s angry and wants everyone to know it. She screams and squirms, greeting most of what she encounters with personal resentment. Mia is friendless, intolerant of life around her. She was kicked out of school for reasons that are not revealed in the film. But we can easily guess why—she’s a rebel with a loud mouth and fierce exterior. When her mother, Joanne, played with unflinching realism by Kierston Wareing, asks her, angrily, “What’s your problem?” Mia responds in an outpouring of hatred and frustration, “You’re my problem.”

Mia spends much of her life moving about, angrily observing life around her. Her refuge, or temporary escape from the confines of the apartment she shares with her mother and younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) is going to the vacant apartment upstairs. There, wearing a hoodie and sweats, she moves in sync with the beat of rap songs she listens to from her portable CD player. Her face is mostly expressionless as she looks out the window to the world outside. Her vista seems endless. As she dances, her ponytail sways back and forth, as do her large hoop earrings. Her gaze far-reaching and unsmiling, Her hopes and dreams wordless, but resonant nevertheless.

During one of her walks into an area not far from where she lives, she spots a white horse tethered by a chain and metal lock. The area is bleak, a wasteland of trailers, dry grass. Mia’s sense of justice and the kindness she feels toward the horse is somehow a metaphor for her own life. She wants to set the horse free.

Mia is a girl with a jagged edge. A problem and obvious annoyance to her mother who seems more like a skanky older sister, Mia seems to have a certain wisdom her mother doesn’t share. When Connor, the mother’s hunky boyfriend, enters the picture, the household changes. The mother curtails her incessant badgering of her daughter. Mia is visibly taken by Joanne’s boyfriend, played so well by Michael Fessbender (Inglourious Basterds). He exudes the natural charm and irresistible sexiness of the character, as well as an element of wholesome caring, so missing in the household before his appearance. But it’s clear from early on that he has more than a wholesome interest in his supposed girlfriend’s daughter.

There is a scene where Connor takes Joanne, Mia, and her younger sister on a car ride in the country. He is taking them out of the ‘fish tank’ and no one reacts to it with more enthusiasm than Mia. When Connor plays “California Dreamin’ “ performed by Bobby Womack, we see Mia in profile, the wind from the partially open car window playing with her hair. Her expression is softer than before. There is even a hint of a smile. We catch Mia ever so subtly moving her head in time with the beat of the song. She likes it. Connor catches the look in the rearview and there is a moment shared between, a faint and tantalizing glimmer of sexuality that passes between the two that we know is a promise of what is to come.

The story moves with the swiftness and ease of a gently, sometimes turbulent flowing river. The cinematography by Robbie Ryan is breathtaking at times—not only in terms of moody skies that accentuate the feeling of the moment but in the angles. One such instance is when Connor puts Mia, who has passed out on her mother’s bed, to bed in Mia’s own room. His actions in her bedroom are seen from her viewpoint through the crook of her arm. And then we see her from the reverse angle, as if from Connor’s p.o.v.

Fish Tank is a true work of art and is the latest movie from Academy Award-winning British writer and director Andrea Arnold (Red Road), who won the coveted Palme d’Or for her film this year.

It is the film debut of Rebecca Griffiths, who plays Mia’s younger sister, Tyler. Ms. Griffiths plays her character with all the ferocity and angst of a child who, while struggling to survive in the adult world she finds herself in, seems to know on some deeper level to what degree she is being robbed of her childhood.

But the film belongs to Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia. It is her first acting role. A remarkable performer, Ms. Jarvis lives and breathes the life of Mia with an intensity that makes it seem she isn’t acting at all, but rather revealing the naked truth of who she is to the camera. Like the best screen actors, she conveys everything through her eyes. The story goes that Ms. Jarvis was discovered on an Essex train platform. She was having an argument with her boyfriend.