Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Production still. Mia and Connor (Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender). Photo: Holly Horner.

FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIA is the clenched, invisible daughter of a self-obsessed mother grasping at her mislaid youth. Warehoused in an Essex council estate, Mia (Katie Jarvis) escapes the banal violence of her daily life through hip-hop dance, which she performs secretly in an abandoned flat. Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend—easy in his skin and disarmingly kind—is the first person who really sees her. The long, slow fuse of their attraction burns to inexorable catastrophe, as such attractions will.

Even if Fish Tank (2009), writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second feature, traverses somewhat hackneyed narrative territory, it is a bracingly unsentimental and utterly controlled film. Her remarkably restrained hand leads, happily, to remarkable ferocity. Anchored by humane, intelligent performances from Jarvis and Fassbender, Fish Tank maps the often ambiguous hunger that draws damaged people together. Jarvis is particularly mesmerizing; as Mia, her brittle, carefully cultivated carapace of nonchalance is threatened at every turn by her vulnerability and her devastating anger.

Robbie Ryan’s meticulous camera work—intimate but also clinical—underscores the nebulousness of the boundary between the wild and the contained: between rage and need, desire and love. The Essex borderlands, where industrial plants and housing estates meet the mudflats of the Thames estuary, seem to contain the entire mystery of postmodern life, in which an overpass of the A-16 shelters a talismanic white horse and a gypsy camp of Irish Travellers.

Arnold has been hailed as the heir apparent to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. And Fish Tank, with its echoing canyons of tower blocks and concrete wastelands, is firmly embedded in the tradition of social realism. But the film is ultimately—and refreshingly—less interested in revealing or commenting on ills of the British class system than it is in modeling the contours of one young woman’s awakening.

Libby Edelson

Fish Tank opens Friday, January 15, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.