Sometimes, you have to swim forward, whether you like it or not.
By Jorge Ignacio Castillo
THE PLOT: 14-year old Sam (the wonderful Julia Sarah Stone) is about to enter the worst spring of her life. Not only she must work cleaning rooms at the retirement home run by her mom (Leah Pinsent), Sam also has to endure considerable bulling at swimming class from girls more developed than her. Upset and self-conscious, Sam refuses to change her swimwear in front of the others (hence the title), causing further taunting. Her only source of comfort is the swimming instructor, who may or may not be a predator.
Unbeknownst to Sam, two of the people entering her orbit may possess more value than her first impression of them indicated: A lonely, kind retiree and a cantankerous old man (Kenneth Welsh) reluctant to accept the retirement community as his new home. Sam must learn to navigate uncharted territory with little guidance and experience. Mistakes are bound to take place, but also plenty of self-discovery.
CRITIQUE: Wet Bum works with a very limited canvas, but the creative team behind it makes the most of it. Since the lead is a painfully shy 14-year old, the movie doesn’t rely much on dialogue. Instead, we get a fairly complete character study based on Sam’s reactions: While sympathetic, the lead is allowed to be difficult or exhibit lack of judgement, much like an average teenager. Doesn’t hurt that Julia Sarah Stone has a singularly expressive face and her emotional state is easy to read.
Sam goes through teenage hell, and the payoff is far from Hollywood-like, yet is more lasting: Being at ease with oneself. Director Lindsay Mackay steers clear of Lars Von Trier territory (thankfully), but doesn’t shy away of Sam budding sexuality. In a particularly difficult scene involving the lead and an older suitor, Mackay underlines the improperness of the situation with remarkable grace.
The cinematography of Wet Bum exemplifies how far you can get with good composition and a clear idea of how do you want the movie to look like. Besides some nifty under-the-water camera work (the only place in the entire world Sam feels at ease), the cold palette on display is submersing.
There are some unnecessary flourishes (like the very opening scene) that add little to the story, but overall Wet Bum accomplishes what it set up to do.
· I can’t emphasize this enough, Julia Sarah Stone is a find. Far cry from a Nickelodeon starlet-in-waiting, Stone has the screen presence and acting chops to carry a movie.
· Leah Pinsent, recently wasted as the putative villain in Big News from Grand Rock, manages to create a more textured character with about the same amount of screen time.
· Some of the “kids” cast as high-schoolers look way too old for the part.
· The ADR work is rather distracting, to the point that one wonders if it was really necessary to take the audience off the movie to correct a minor detail.
· Was there a purpose to set Wet Bum in the late 80’s/early 90’s?
RATING (CANADIAN CURVE): ***1/2
Wet Bum is now playing in Toronto. Opens May the 29th in Vancouver.