Sundance Review: 'Wetlands'

Another Sundance, another coming-of-age comedy about a teenage German girl who’s obsessed with her hemorrhoids. It’s a premise as old as Robert Redford himself, that comfortably familiar story that moviegoers can trace beat by beat: Act 1 – introduce the pathologically plucky heroine (Carla Juri as Helen), a child of divorce so fixated on her bodily fluids that she takes a greater clinical interest in the consistency of her vaginal mucus than she does in the boy inspiring it from her. The inciting incident, of course, transpires when the girl opens a bloody anal fissure while shaving… as anyone who has ever seen a movie before has no doubt already guessed. Act 2 – the protagonist lies in her hospital bed, often swallowed by flashbacks of her formative years and fantasies of her parents, for whom she continually aggravates her rectal wound in the hopes that she can stay in the hospital (with the hunky med student) long enough to scheme for her mom and dad to visit her at the same time and magically rekindle their love for one another. Act 3 – Well, some guys jerk off on a pizza. To say more would be spoiling.

David Wnendt’s adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s provocative and uber-popular novel cum feminist manifesto of the same name is an upbeat and visually playful sideshow of bodily horrors, the story of a young woman finding herself from the inside out. And Helen is most definitely a character who deserves to be found, a remarkable girl who exists completely outside the accepted boundaries of female sexuality and human hygiene. Made compulsively watchable by Carla Juri’s spirited, guileless performance – the effortlessness of her physical appeal crucially allowing the character to feel capable of owning the societal norms that she ignores – Helen is as curious as she is unique, glowing with the power to transform the perspectives of the people she meets. The film sees Helen in the same vaguely magical way as “The Blind Side” depicted Michael “Big Mike” Oher, but uses that quality to, um, slightly different ends.

In fact, Helen is such a charismatic creature that she’s likely to make even the most forward-thinking viewers feel downright prudish, or at least queasy. Of course, Wnendt has every intention of toeing the line between titillation and terror, thoroughly grossing you out in the process. The tone is set with the opening credits, riffing on the title sequence from “Fight Club” in its Jules Verne-like exploration of the microbiology of an unwashed pubic hair as it rubs against the rancid seat of a public toilet. It’s disgusting, but then again, so are we. Helen is nothing less (and, unfortunately, little more) than a human rebuttal to a world where people have become so afraid of themselves that they’ve sanitized both body and mind from the more painful things that life has to offer.

“Wetlands” tirelessly tries to infuse a difficult novel with the kind of pep and humor endemic to Sundance movies (where this film is playing, but not premiering), using the coming-of-age story as a vehicle to ask how we’re supposed to communicate with each other when we’re explicitly discouraged from talking about the good things in life. How is Helen supposed to feel comfortable enough to discuss her mother’s suicide attempt – an incident that all but broke their family – when something as pedestrian as a hemorrhoid is deemed a taboo topic, the mere invocation of the word tantamount to social suicide?

The narrative cleverly uses Helen’s unchecked fascination with bodily fluids to reveal how emotionally stunted she is at her core, the material’s inherent shock value supplanted by a greater human concern. The problem is that Wnendt’s execution isn’t nearly as admirable as his intent, the film bungling it’s obvious transition from the universal to the personal because it fails to recognize that what Helen reveals about the rest of the world is far more interesting than what the rest of the world reveals about her. The girl’s various misadventures are all fun to watch (through your fingers), but it’s a shame that the movie refuses to appreciate that its heroine’s power stems from how fully formed she is, in much the same way that a feverishly dreamed flower stems from her vagina (yeah, that happens). The film doesn’t allow Helen to be a perfect monster for a Purrell world, she has to be an aberration, complete with an origin story that explains her psychological state. This is a movie about smells (Helen discussing her genitals: “My goal is that they emit a slightly bewitching odor that you can smell coming from my pants”) and the consistency of human discharge, it’s a movie that wants you to look at two girls exchanging bloody tampons and actually question the revulsion that it giddily inspires.

But if “Wetlands” is so overly determined to make sure that every last person in the back row acknowledges how transgressive this stuff is, the boundary-pushing physical content only reveals the safety of the narrative in which its embedded. By reducing a potential feminist icon to a byproduct of her childhood, “Wetlands” ultimately isn’t all that much more sophisticated than Howard Stern insisting that all porn actors were molested as kids. Helen is introduced to us a proud modern woman, and it’s disappointing (and dull) to watch the film shackle her to the crusty and outmoded tropes of psych 101. But if “Wetlands” is frustratingly divided between the real and the regressive, the film stops short of diagnosing Helen with hysteria. Juri’s performance makes it impossible to divert your eyes from the screen, no matter how much you might want to, and a brave film that eventually succumbs to convention is still braver than most.

SCORE: 6.9 / 10