So many films are devoted to chronicling the coming-of-age of teenage outcasts that these dramas may as well be their own genre. As filmmakers and screenwriters adapt elements of his or her own upbringing to the screen, the genre is often a tough one to tire from, since each creator lends their own perspectives to these stories of curiosity, heartbreak, new friendships and social pressures. Writer/director Lindsay MacKay has made a variety of shorts focused on youths; now, for her feature debut, Wet Bum, she focuses on both the delicate beauty and the danger associated with growing up.
In the Canadian coming-of-age drama, Julia Sarah Stone gives a performance of tremendous depth, spark and dramatic range. (The Toronto Film Festival crowned Stone as one of the festival’s four Rising Stars this year.) The young actor plays Sam, a pale, lonely teen that does not have many friends. After school, she takes swimming lessons with a group of girls who torment the bony, awkward teen for not changing out of her slim blue swimsuit. In an early scene, the other girls show off this curiosity and sense of competition by running off with Sam’s clothes when she goes swimming.
When she is not daydreaming in class or disobeying swim instructor Lukas (Craig Arnold), Sam volunteers at a retirement home that her mom (Leah Pinsent, daughter of Gordon) manages. She finds comfort sitting with the elderly Judith (Diana Leblanc), a wrinkled beauty who is always staring out her apartment window over the snowy yard beneath. The curtains in Judith’s room are always open, so that the white from outside blasts into the room like a heavenly light. Sam also feels a connection with Ed (Kenneth Welsh), a cranky old man who keeps trying to escape his apartment to an unknown destination.
In Wet Bum’s opening scene, Sam, Judith and Ed all stand still in their natural environment – Sam by the indoor pool, Judith and Ed in their rooms – before they tumble back in slow-motion until they are floating in air. The buoyant lift off the ground is a whimsical, but striking touch that teaches us about both the solitude the three characters share, as well as their desire for personal freedom. MacKay also films Sam’s swim lessons underwater, as Ohan Benchetrit and Brendan Canning’s serene score gives the young protagonist her few moments of bliss, as she floats around in her own world. These moments juxtapose with extended shots of Sam leaving the pool area, alone, with the dim lighting emphasizing her solitude.
While Wet Bum‘s first scene hints that the film will focus predominantly on the relationships between Sam and her kindred elderly folks, the main story revolves around an off-kilter relationship Sam has with Lukas. With a square jaw and perpetual grin, Lukas is somewhat of a charmer and boasts much more self-confidence than Sam. As a more socially adept male who crushes on a shy, younger girl, Lukas’s relationship with Sam is one of the more unique and uncomfortable teen romances in current cinema.
MacKay’s story does not take the easy route when it comes to depicting the difficulty of Sam’s developing sexuality. There is an obvious attraction between her and Lukas near the start – it comes to a head when he nearly performs “mouth to mouth” on her during swim class, which spawns some teasing from Sam’s peers. But, these two teens should not be together and MacKay creates suspense by trying to force them to hook up. We quickly see that Lukas has little more than sex on his mind, while Sam is innocent and yearns for something different. As the characters gravitate closer and we notice his shallow behavior toward her, which is aggressive to the point of creepiness, MacKay does not hold back from showing their incompatibility. The scene of initial sexual activity between the characters in the backseat of a car is harrowing instead of romantic. One admires MacKay’s daring for not leading us into an expectedly superficial romance.
As Sam, Julia Sarah Stone delivers an all-encompassing performance that is strong yet sensitive, affecting and arresting. (There is a reason the Canadian actress is already working on films by Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog.) As the cautious teen, Stone runs the gamut of emotions, easily portraying Sam’s vulnerable side as she curdles up for privacy in the pool changing room and looking at her skinny silhouette in the mirror. Stone has the emotional capacity to turn bleary-eyed in a heartbeat, but also the sly wit and gleaming smile to showcase the character’s efforts to make something more of her boring, small-town life. Meanwhile, the actor has the keen intelligence to not just play Sam as a shy, insecure teen, as there is both deep horror and sensual pleasure in her flirtations with Lukas.
MacKay spends a lot of time with Sam as the teen navigates a rocky potential relationship, although this infringes on her relationships with Judith and Ed. The writer/director missed an opportunity to plumb further into the growing friendship between Sam and the elderly people she tends to. Nevertheless, curing Wet Bum from some of its measured pacing are its masterful performances, full of insight and empathy. Stone is a mesmerizing presence, sinking into the character’s pains and desires with ease. MacKay ought to give her debut film a less crude title, as it does not portray the maturity and sensitivity of this early effort.
Wet Bum is a film of deep feeling and sensitivity, anchored by an astonishing and assured lead performance from its young star.