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. I'm not saying that's not still important, but to pull it 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, there has to be something more.
Treading Water has two very definite things going for it. The lead actresses 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 leads 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 Alex into their lives. Casey's mother can't face the truth, and the conflict is tearing the family apart.
Alex is counselling young teens. Casey's younger brother Andrew has been getting himself in trouble, and Alex is his case worker. No one else 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.
Ifthe film had contented itself with 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 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 in that it refuses to tie up everything neatly, 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.
However, Treading Water 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 visit.