PLOT: Eighteen-year-old Helen is just a normal teenager still reeling from the divorce of her parents. Well, normal aside from the fact that she's a brazen nymphomaniac obsessed with ignoring the basics of hygiene. When an unfortunate shaving accident puts her in the hospital, she meets a male nurse who just might capture her disgusting heart.
REVIEW: I pride myself on being able to handle icky situations in film; horror movies are my comfort food, and nowadays it's extremely difficult to gross me out or unnerve me. WETLANDS out-ickys even the gnarliest of modern horror films, with several moments that are too cringe-inducing for words. But WETLANDS is not the latest exploitation shockfest; it's a portrait of a breezy teenager who falls in love with an unlikely mate and yearns to see her separated parents get together again. Doesn't sound like a tale that'll test your gag reflexes and send the prudes running for the exits within the first five minutes, does it? You haven't met Helen.
Helen, played by an adorable sprite named Carla Juri, is at first glance a carefree teenager with the wistful yet vapid expression of a cover model and a natural inclination to rebel. She doesn't allow us very long to live with the assumption she's just another pretty face (with admittedly a strange habit of skateboarding barefoot), because she tells us in matter-of-fact voice-over, "As long as I remember, I've had hemorrhoids." Soon after she steps into a flooded public restroom in order to apply cream to her ailment, she's suddenly grasped by the urge to rub her vagina all over the seriously unsavory-looking toilet. This is nothing new for Helen.
That's the tip of the iceberg. A small list of Helen's affronts to hygiene: she rarely washes her nether-regions; she allows a stranger's semen to solidify in her hand so she can roll it into a small ball and eat it ("chewing gum"); she masturbates with fruit (and later uses it in a meal); she picks her nose and ingests the contents; she wipes her own menstruation blood on herself you get the idea, I hope. Helen is quite unlike any teen girl we've ever met in a film. She bucks societal norms and acts out in transgressive ways not for show or anyone else's displeasure, but for own satisfaction. Helen was raised by a neurotic mother who demanded everything in the house - especially the bathroom and essentially Helen's own body - remain antiseptic. To say that Helen's current habit of making her own body into a germ zone is her form of insubordination is understating matters. Besides, she does this predominantly to test her mother's teachings. Can you really get a yeast infection by rubbing your vagina against a filthy toilet lid? That's the kind of question she'd like to answer herself.
Based on the popular novel of the same name by Charlotte Roche, WETLANDS is not merely aiming for gross-out shocks, although its protagonist's lifestyle demands that we're witness to an onslaught of unforgettably nasty imagery. As it happens, the basic story of the film, directed by David Wnendt, is fairly conventional: Helen eventually meets a young man who is quite unlike her; he's shy, initially taken aback by her grotesque requests, and spoken for (naturally, his girlfriend is a stern, unsmiling type). They don't exactly "meet cute": she accidentally cuts her hemorrhoids while shaving and ends up in the hospital, where he works as a nurse. But the delicate and strange romance builds in a way that structurally would fit into your typical romantic comedy.
In fact, it could be said that WETLANDS is a romantic comedy; if I've ignored mentioning how funny it actually is, it might be because I was caught up in a bodily fluid wormhole. The movie's worldview is much like Helen's, and it has a fast pace, a penchant for naughtiness, and ultimately a sweet, innocent heart. That tenderness derives from Helen's little-girl wish that her parents - separated after a controversial incident that remains mysterious until the end - will get back together, as people with children should. The two seem preoccupied with their new lives, but Helen's heart breaks every time she can't seem to put them in the same room together. And though we see her parents for who they truly are - selfish and incompatible - our hearts break a little for Helen.
Your ability to stick with the film may rest on the slender shoulders of Juri, who is up to every last shameless (shameful?) act it asks of her. She's also nude a lot. The Swiss actress, speaking fluent German, is clearly fearless, transforming into Helen with graceful ease. Juri makes even Helen's most unspeakable act (a toss-up) look effortless and natural; yes, she's only in a movie and these small atrocities are simulated, but it's an undeniably bold performance all the same. Best Actress material? I don't think you'll convince most of the Academy to watch this film, but she'd get a nomination from me.
It's a person of strong stomach who will appreciate WETLANDS' perverse, taboo-busting brand of storytelling, but it's a thoroughly rewarding effort, highly recommended. Wnendt's direction is imaginative and energetic (several vivid fantasy sequences are interspersed throughout, and comparisons to Danny Boyle's work in TRAINSPOTTING would be apt), and despite the raunchy nature of what we're seeing, the film never feels weighted-down by Helen's grimy proclivities. In fact, quite the opposite; WETLANDS is oddly uplifting, a movie without a care in the world and an optimistic attitude. It's refreshing to see something so genuinely in-your-face and at the same time free of snark. There's no "aren't we being crazy?!" posturing from the movie, it just is what it is and it doesn't give a shit what you think. Enviable to be such a free spirit.
|Extra Tidbit:||WETLANDS is currently only open in one theater in New York but will expand starting this week; check theater listings HERE.|