Midway through Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), the plot pivots on a song. “You’ve got some weird shit in here,” says Joanne (Kierston Wareing,), riffling through the CDs in her new boyfriend’s car. It’s the morning after a boozy little dance party she threw in her apartment in the Mardyke council estates in East London, and she and Connor (Michael Fassbender) are on a spur-of-the-moment drive, her two daughters wearing bored looks in the backseat, the youngest a cigarette-smoking spitfire named Tyler, just eight. We see the film through the fifteen-year-old eyes of the eldest, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who swiped the remains of a bottle of vodka at her mother’s party the night before and whose view of things today is laced with hungover clarity, the world slipping into sharp focus.
In the driver’s seat, Connor defends his music. “You can’t call Bobby Womack ‘weird shit,’ ” he says. Moments later, he reckons aloud, “I guess I’m gonna have to educate you girls,” and slides the CD in.
Perhaps they’re expecting something a little more radical than “California Dreamin.’ ” Once a folk anthem of the nascent Laurel Canyon counterculture scene from which the Mamas and the Papas came, the song now signals nostalgia, made even more dismal and depressing when heard over shopping mall speakers and oldies stations. It has translated easily to film before, notably as a persistent presence in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), the song that the character Faye listens to obsessively. And it was used in another movie in 1994—in the most literal way possible—playing in the background as Forrest Gump drafts a letter home from war.
Even at fifteen Mia likely has her own preconceived notions of the song, from the Mamas and the Papas’ version, or the Beach Boys’, and if so, the singsong choral harmonies likely ring as faraway from her experience of the world as California itself. The homesickness John and Michelle Phillips wrote about was straightforward: the wistfulness of West Coasters trapped and sun-starved in a winter in the East. But the working-class housing where Mia lives has a lot more in common with the Cleveland, Ohio, of Womack’s childhood, and a neighborhood that he described as a ghetto, his father’s steel-mill paycheck so stretched that he shared a bed with four brothers and dumpster-dived behind the grocery for food.
In Fish Tank, Arnold’s choice of Womack’s cover reworks the meanings usually applied to the song, and uses it to articulate the attraction between Mia and Connor, and to articulate Mia’s own desires and awakening. “I worked really hard on the music,” Arnold told Indiewire. “The music . . . is like a character, and it’s very much part of the story. And then it’s storytelling, music, on some level.” In the film, Mia’s feelings about what she wants are beginning to surface in complicated ways for which she doesn’t yet have words.
At the sound of the first strummed chords heard over Connor’s car stereo, Mia’s ears prick up. “California Dreamin’ ” is unlike her favorite music: Nas, Ja Rule, Eric B. & Rakim, whose songs can be heard elsewhere in the film. Still, something sinks in. The English day couldn’t be more perfectly matched to its lyrics—leaves brown, skies gray, wind turbines spinning across the washy landscape as they drive past. Telephone lines and transformers recede into view, giving way to a few clouds as they near their destination, the Thames Estuary. She and her mother and sister stay mostly quiet, listening. Connor, a handsome, flirtatious security guard who appeared in their lives only recently, is still a mystery to them, and this is one of the most personal things about himself he’s revealed. In the front seat their mother looks much as she did at her own party, ready for a drink, smoking and swaying, almost as if she’s dancing to the memory of the more famous song, rather than this very different take.
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