For its first thirty minutes Wetlands was one of the best films I had seen in years. Watching the first act of Wetlands is an exciting experience as the movie comes out the gate big and brave and unique and featuring a central character who is a woman and who is in control of her body in every possible way. But then as the film goes on its unable to maintain its breakneck pace, and as the narrative unfolds what had been a transgressive explosion slowly morphs into a filthier version of a standard Sundance movie.
The opening scene has main character Helen walking barefoot into a public toilet that is flooded with two inches of brown water. She sees a splotch of an unfathomable filth on the seat, a kinky pubic hair embedded in it. The camera flies in towards the splotch and zooms down to a microscopic level, exposing the worms and the protozoa and the bizarre life teeming within, finally revealing a fantasy world of strange monsters in their own ecosystem contained within this drop of horror. And then Helen rubs her bare vagina on the seat, leaving the toilet clean.
What an opening! It’s no wonder that Wetlands can’t sustain that, but I wish it did. Helen, played by the absolutely amazing Carla Juri, is a character for the ages. She’s gross and obsessed with bodily fluids and keeps her pussy just dirty enough to emit an odor that will captivate men who don’t even realize what’s happening. I’ve seen very few characters as joyfully filthy as Helen, and none who were women. But when the plot kicks in - while shaving her ass Helen nicks herself and creates a huge, bloody anal fissure that sends her to the hospital - Wetlands begins faltering.
The envelope is absolutely pushed multiple times, including a sequence where four men ejaculate - in tight close-up and in slomo - on a pizza, but in many ways that makes the story’s slide into familiar territory all the more frustrating. Towards the end of the film I realized Wetlands is essentially a Fox Searchlight movie told from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s perspective (with more bodily fluids).
It’s worth reiterating how good Carla Juri is; her big eyes are captivating and she is so fearless and free that the performance melts away, replaced simply by her being. Juri is truly extraordinary.
I wish the rest of Wetlands lived up to that first half hour. And I wish the film allowed Helen to simply be a complete weirdo instead of psychoanalyzing her and possibly curing her at the end (the final image of the film, Helen yelling in a cleansing rain, says to me that she is ‘getting better,’ basically the Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club treatment). For all the ways Wetlands tries to transgress, I wish it had gone further here, letting Helen be Helen.