Although the title may suggest an especially unsavoury category of niche porn, the most conspicuous act of perversion perpetrated by Lindsay MacKay's coming-of-age teen drama Wet Bum is imagining The Little Mermaid in real-world reverse. What would it be like to be a girl who wished she could stay in the water all the time?
Beneath the surface of the high school pool, Sam (Julia Sarah Stone) is in her element: alone, weightless and temporarily unbothered by the incessant hassles that bug her back on the surface. Thin as a stalk of celery and prey to the cruel teasing of her more-developed classmates, Sarah finds peace and relief only when she's underwater. And when she's not, she scampers for cover so quickly she doesn't bother even to remove her bathing suit, the movie's title impressing itself as the damp spot on her trousers.
The pool is Sam's haven, but only so long as she's underwater. There, holding her breath and moving like an underfed seal, she can't hear the teasing voices of either her peers or her pain-in-the-ass brother (Jamie Johnston), can avoid the uncertainties of looming adolescence and can feel, if only for a moment, that her body is exactly what it should be.
Wet Bum may evoke Hans Christian Andersen's classic being-human fable on its more submerged levels, but closer to the surface the influences are dramatically less magical. On the one hand, Sarah's story is pure teen ugly duckling material. As she comes to terms with her own strength and identity by embracing difference as a fundamental human asset, her inner swan will break the surface. On the other, this pubescent fish-out-of-water story is a variation on vintage pop-mythic Canadiana: an outsider's story of the struggle to function on hard land, a ritual of alienation as a defining indication of character.
Once equally celebrated and mourned as a cinema fixated on losers, Anglo-Canadian movies from Goin' Down the Road to The Sweet Hereafter seemed fixated on the spectacle of thwarted dreams and destinations deferred, a cautionary anti-mythology that held rote Hollywood triumphalism at a suspicious arm's length. Canadian movies might have been lacking for heroes and fairy-tale endings, but in that very wariness a kind of distinctive national identity emerged: We might have been losers, outcasts and congenital failures, but darn-it-all, we was us. And that was better than being nothing at all.
Or it was, up to a point, and Wet Bum is proof that point has largely passed. For one thing, you can see it in Sam's eyes: they might lower when faced with the prospect of running that unforgiving gauntlet between the pool's edge and the locker room, but when they look up they have a defiance, intelligence and internal focus that suggests a vision beyond the horizon. Combine that inner fire with actor Julia Sarah Stone's confident vocal tones and implied cocky conviction that it ain't Sam but the world around that needs a good dunking in the deep end, and Wet Bum qualifies as a post-alienated Canadian movie.
Transpiring largely under grey suburban skies and in such chilly institutional spaces as Sam's high school and the senior home where she works part-timeand comes to see what real loneliness is like, first time writer-director MacKay's movie has a consistent visual tone of almost drowsy drabness, but that's the point: This is the world Sam will learn to see beyond and swim clear of. It will take some doing – she'll have a painfully empowering flirtation with her swim coach (Craig Arnold) and an enlightening collision with Kenneth Welsh's crotchety old widower – but she'll probably make it out of the deep end.