treading water

2001

Directed by: Lauren Himmel
Written by: Julia Hollinger

OK, so the "I've come out to my family and they can't handle it" thing has been done to death. Really, it has. There are only two storylines more overused in lesbian film - the coming-out story and the lesbian pregnancy story. So to pull this off successfully you need to have an edge. You need something extra to really pull your viewers in. Some gay films do that with sex. Sure, sexy love scenes can make or break a film, and this one has one extended sex scene midway through that certainly had me paying attention. Still though, there has to be something more.

Treading Water has two very definite things going for it. The lead actresses (one of whom - Nina Landey - I've seen guest star in a half-dozen different network TV shows) have palpable romantic chemistry. Even more, they had a comfort level with each other that made it easy for me to believe that they were long-term, committed partners. They had a banter, a way of fighting and making up that was authentic in a way so many films aren't.

The second remarkable thing is that Treading Water has two lead characters who have unique identities. This is rarer than you might think. Most films don't take the time to really build the characters within their own lives. The film is usually too busy trying to create the romantic tension, so what is often overlooked is that we need to care about the characters individually before we care about them getting together, or staying together, as a couple.

Casey is a Longshoreman working on the New England coast. She gets up every morning to check her traps, and then comes home to wake up her social worker girlfriend Alex. When the film begins it is almost Christmas, and Casey is facing the annual battle with her family to accept that she is part of a lesbian couple, and to invite Alex into their lives. More specifically, it is Casey's mother who can't face the truth, and the conflict is tearing the family apart.

Alex on the other hand is counselling young teens. Casey's younger brother Andrew has been getting himself in trouble, and Alex is his case worker. No one in the family knows of her connection to both Andrew and Casey, but when Casey makes a stand with her family, Alex knows the time will come when everything will be brought into the open.

All this is great, and if the movie had contented itself with simply exploring that conundrum I think everything would have been fine. Unfortunately we're also introduced to an annoying (and rather superfluous) best friend of Alex's who comes to stay with them on their already-cramped houseboat. Also, there's a subplot involving the death of a close friend of Casey's other brother Sean five years before that makes absolutely no sense. At first I thought the film was trying to tell us that Sean was gay too and the dead "friend" was his lover, but that wasn't the case.

Eventually everything comes to a head, chiefly through the efforts of a random cousin whose only purpose appears to be to come to the family dinner and stir up trouble. While the conclusion is interesting (I like it when a film refuses to tie up all its loose ends) and the couple remain strong despite the family interferences, I felt like the script lost its way somewhere in the final act. Too many characters we don't care about had too many lines that didn't really matter. This is compounded by the fact that the supporting cast were all such amateur actors that every time they opened their mouths I cringed.

But this is what Treading Water does have. It has a couple I believed in. It has some smart dialogue that makes Casey and Alex feel truthful and real and desperately in love. There is an intensity about the film that made me care about the somewhat-convoluted subject matter. It's also pretty sexy in parts.

The cinematographer has obviously gone to great pains to seek out interesting locations, to capture this story and situate it lovingly within its environment. Coverage was excellent for an independent film. I was surprised by the number of shots and angles and changes that I saw in crucial scenes. Technically the sound is a bit inconsistent, and the choppy editing choices sometimes left me shaking my head, but I got a real feel for the New England atmosphere, and that helps a lot.

The actors were always moving (static direction is a huge problem in indie film) which made it all the more obvious when things were quiet and still for a reason. In the chaos that is Casey and Alex's story, the writer and director obviously wanted to convey that these women are the foundation of each other's lives, for better or worse. One beautiful scene where they held each other quietly and looked over the water damn near took my breath away. It's a pity that there weren't more of those small moments of genius, but this is a good beginning for some talented new filmmakers, and certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com