Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Written and Directed by: Josephine Decker

Madeline_s_Madeline[1]One of the core tales of modern cinema is Fellini’s 8 ½ . The film has two defining characteristics: one is that it’s the story of an ambitious and troubled filmmaker, struggling to depict his life on-screen in intricate details. The other is its moments of surrealism. 8 ½ has spawned a number of imitations, and the latest may be Madeline’s Madeline.

Decker’s new film is a bizarre story, one that can’t be understood without at least some interpretive effort on the audience’s part. It’s main cast include 16 year-old Madeline (Helena Howard), her drama teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) and her mother Regina (Miranda July). Madeline is a gifted actor with ambitions to go to Julliard or NYU. She also appears to suffer from an unspecified form of hallucinatory mental illness. The illness is never named, so while it may be something specific that some viewers may be able to identify, it’s functional role is simply to render Madeline disoriented and vulnerable.

It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving things away. It is essentially a collage of comic jabs at drama-class activities and uncomfortable scenes in which what exactly is real is left entirely ambiguous. What I can say, however, is that amongst the “weird” movies I’ve seen, Madeline’s Madeline stands out as one I’d feel comfortable recommending to mainstream viewers. Even if not it’s entirely clear how its whole plot fits together, each scene is logically coherent and consists of accessible and energetic dialogue and colorful imagery.

Perhaps the best way to explain the notability of Madeline’s Madeline, however, is to look at its relationship to 8 ½ . The similarities are evident in the piece of theatre it centres around, however the differences are notable as well. While 8 ½ speaks to ego and loss-of-control, as an auteur tells his own tale, Madeline is not the director of her own story. Instead she is subject to the creative vision of Evangeline. This difference in turn creates a new similarity with the 8 ½ -subgenre as Madeline’s on-stage relationship with Evangeline comes to mirror her relationship with Regina. It can also be said that while 8 ½ speaks to the impossibility of making a story of one’s own life, Madeline’s Madeline reminds us that it is even harder to tell the story of others.

At 1h 34 minutes, Madeline’s Madeline is rather concise relative to 8 ½. This is a trait I generally like in movies and I indeed preferred Madeline’s Madeline to 8 ½. The former film, much likes its modern adaptation Synecdoche New York, dragged on, but in fairness it had to to make its point. Madeline’s Madeline ‘s ending ,meanwhile, was comparably abrupt, leaving me with a blinked-and-I-missed-it feeling. If Madeline’s Madeline has a weakness than, it’s that its concision leaves it without the memorable identity that films like 8 ½ and Synecdoche, New York have. Overall, however, this sacrifice is worth it. Maybe Madeline’s Madeline has a mind-blowing coherent thesis and perhaps it’s just an extended drama class activity. Either way, it may be the most lively and engaging movie the 8 ½ cannon has ever produced.

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Eighth Grade (2018)

Written and directed by: Bo Burnham

Eighth_Grade[1]Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is not the movie you’d expect it to be. That’s not to say I went in with particular expectations, informed or otherwise. However, one would think a film by a sometimes crass musical-stand-up-comedian would be a tad more laugh-out-loud funny. Sure it’s about a serious topic: pre-teen/teenage isolation and cruelty , but one still might expect a work more like Mean Girls riddled with hyperbolic dramas and memorable one liners. Instead, Eighth Grade is an exercise in realism. In hindsight, perhaps its not shocking that a stand up comic wrote it. Stands up comics observe the absurdity and awkwardness of reality: all it takes then to make a movie like Eighth Grade is to take those same observations and deliver them with more calm and tenderness.

Eighth Grade introduces itself to the sound of an (apple) Photo Booth camera counting down. We meet protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher), eighth grader and self-help vlogger. She first comes across as someone simply seeking attention, who has nothing substantive to stay. The bulk of her videos consist of umms, uhhs and her sign out phrase “Gucci” (I guess I’m too old to get why that’s a cool thing to say.) Kayla’s videos prove thematically important. While they do not necessarily improve in quality, we come to see they are not a generic social activity, but in fact based in a genuine interest of Kayla’s in self-help, perhaps we can even call it psychology. Put simply, the videos are one of the film’s ways of saying that when it comes to middle schoolers, things aren’t always as they outwardly appear. Kayla’s videos add some subtle comic effect to the film as they offer advice on social issues she in fact struggles with. While at first glance this may make the videos feel superficial at worst, and inwardly-focused at best, they come to show Kayla’s true empathy: her genuine desire to make sure others don’t struggle as she did.

Eighth Grade toes the line between having and not having a plot arc. Sure something dramatic happens near the end and then a resolution of sorts is reached, but its series of events are loosely connected.  All we really see is the emotional arc of a soon-to-be fourteen-year-old girl. The film’s decision to focus on emotions and not a narrative, however, is again essential to its theme.  The premise underlying the movie is that a lot of kids are not “mean,” but act that way to hide their insecurities. We see this directly played out in Kayla’s relationship with her father (Josh Hamilton). Interestingly, Kayla and (to an extent) her father are the only three dimensional characters in the piece. This choice makes sense as it helps viewers enter Kayla’s headspace and share in her discomfort around popular “mean” kids like Kennedy Graves (Catherine Oliviere). We might not feel such discomfort if we simply saw Kennedy as misunderstood and easily reconcilable with Kayla. In other words, Burnham contradicts his message in order to strengthen it: middle schoolers are kinder and deeper than we give them credit for, but in order to see this we also need to feel the intense way in which middle schoolers  judge and fear each other.

Another key feature of Eighth Grade is the “Charlie Browning” of its adults. No there’s no one making trumpet sounds, and yes Kayla’s father is a main character, but the absence of adults remains a striking feature in the piece.  For example there is a moment when old-fashioned yearbook awards are given: not academic prizes but things like “most popular,” and “best eyes.” We see a teacher announcing these awards. At least in the schoolboard I grew up in, such an idea feels dated, perhaps even cruel. The teacher who gives out these awards in Eighth Grade is faceless, leaving us in the dark about what’s going on. Is her behavior supposed to come across as inappropriate or normal? I don’t think we’re supposed to know. That’s because the less pleasant elements of teen culture have weight in Kayla’s imaginary, and we are not supposed to see adults as having the power to break this illusion. Another manifestation of this dynamic comes after an awkward, cold exchange between Kennedy and Kayla at the former’s birthday party. This exchange is interrupted by some comic banter between Kenendy’s parents, but her father never appears on screen. This is because the father’s appearance could put things in perspective and suggests that, for the most part, all is well in the kids’ world. Such a sentiment would do no justice to Kayla’s perspective.

I suppose you could say there are two ways Burnham distances himself from his film. The first is that it’s not a comedy, and the second is that his protagonist is a girl. There are obvious political reasons for telling the story from a girl’s perspective; the film lays bare that sleeziness and rape culture develop quite early in people’s lives. There’s something striking about this theme coming up in a film called Eighth Grade. The film’s title does not situate it as a political work: but rather as an every(wo)man story of growing up. This adds another eerie layer to its already uncomfortable depiction of a girl’s experience. Recall the fact that the characters in the film, other than Kayla, are largely flat. This means that when its boy characters behave problematically we are not being told that they are individuals with some harmful behavioral tendencies, or even being presented with a critique of toxic masculinity. Instead, the harassing boys Kayla runs into are treated as forces of nature, yet another inescapable horror in her middle school experience.

A final theme of note in Eighth Grade is technology. Kayla, Kennedy and many of their peers are constantly on their phones, a behavior that comes across as anti-social, though in the case of Kayla we are given a more nuanced view. Burnham is ambiguous in his handling of this issue. One confrontation between Kayla and Kennedy sees the latter speaking monosyllabically while glued to her screen. I for one am undecided on the question of whether  such a scene would have played out differently in a film of years’ past (as middle schoolers like Kennedy no doubt found other ways to be rude in the past) or whether it truly is a moment about cell phone addiction.

I’m sure there’s more to deconstruct about the social and political content of Eighth Grade, and these qualities are no doubt part of its success. The film’s effectiveness, however, can also be attributed to far simpler things. Burnham’s writing captures the language and awkwardness of eighth graders with emotionally captivating authenticity (Eg when Kennedy messages Kayla on instagram “My Mom told me to invite you to my party so this is me doing that.”) And its not just coldness that Burnham writes well. He knows how to write an uplifting monologue with just enough personalized nuance thrown in that it actually feels beautiful and not like greeting card fluff. Eighth Grade may not be actual eighth graders, but middle schoolers of years past will find plenty to appreciate in this generalist, yet fine tuned story.

Greenberg (2010)

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach

Greenberg_poster          There’s something about a title that doesn’t tell you anything that tells you just enough. Part of me finds it odd when a story is named after a character. That character usually doesn’t exist outside of their own narrative realm, so how can a title possible say anything about their story? How can such titles possibly be remembered in a world full of titles? The answer, it would seem, lies in the non-answer to these questions. A movie simply named after its own characters is making a bold statement: that’s its characters are so memorable, they can afford to be promoted simply by their names.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is one such character. The star of a simple, urban story he is, unsurprisingly, a quirky fellow, but even within that archetype he is uniquely written and portrayed. Greenberg’s story is shared with that of Florence (Greta Gerwig). Florence is a nanny for Greenberg’s brother’s well-off family. When the family takes a trip to Vietnam both are called in to play a role taking care of the house and its dog.

When we are introduced to Greenberg we are left to wonder why we are invested in him as an individual. He plays the song It Never Rains in California upon meeting Florence and it doesn’t quite resonate with her the way it does with him. Perhaps, in his head, at this moment, he is quirky. Perhaps in his head he’s worthy of the bold mononym Greenberg, but to us he could be any person having a conversation.

However, over the course of the film, Greenberg’s odd-ballness is allowed to bloom. The simplest way to describe him is as curmudgeon, albeit at least 15 years too young for the trope. He is also a young-man trying to find himself, albeit 15 years too old for that trope. Finally he is jealous and bullish, though in the least macho way possible. In short, Greenberg is quirky, but not in a way that can be described with a single adjective or stereotype. His story thus manages to be oddball without being cartoonish.

In essence, to watch Greenberg is to watch a rather subtle accomplishment. Films can be realist simply by virtue of their depicting realistic events: such realism can be relatively effortless. Greenberg, however, is a script that searches the mundane for the absurd and broadcasts if back to us in its original, mundane form. It is rife with imagination, yet never takes us into imagination land.

If there is a downside to films like Greenberg it’s that their subtle pace can make it hard to notice when an important detail has in fact been revealed. It can be hard to know which lines and moments should be viewed with greater attention than other component’s of the characters’ banter. This flaw is of limited importance, however, as the effectiveness of films like Greenberg comes from their character developments not their plot. I may struggle to tell you before long exactly what its story is, but this boldly named film certainly lives up to the high standard it sets for itself.

 

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Written by: Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana Directed by: Ang Lee

Brokeback_mountainThere are various reasons I take films off the the shelf at the video store or library. Sometimes I systematically try to watch certain works. Other times I go for the oddball covers. In the case of finally seeing Brokeback Mountain, I suppose I was chasing a memory. 2006 was the first year in which I was broadly aware of what films were nominated for the Oscars, even though I was too young to have seen any of them. While my interest was admittedly peaked because a movie about one of my favourite singers (Johnny Cash/Walk the Line) was part of the conversation, I nonetheless retained memories of the names of actors and movies that were not necessarily atop the tabloid world: actors including Brokeback Stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gylenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway,

So what did I think of Brokeback Mountain? I enjoyed it, though perhaps I felt it did not live up to the mystical stature it held as the first “great” (modern) movie to have slipped into my consciousness. In drama classes, a common piece of advice is “show not tell.” Clearly, I think this is good advice, as I regularly find myself using “subtlety” as a near synonym for quality when discussing film. When storytellers, “show and not tell,” they make more powerful statements about the issues they are dealing with, than if they name the issue head on: they allow the issue to emerge in a raw, more natural form.

Brokeback Mountain, literally speaking, is a subtle film. Its protagonist, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) doesn’t say much, and his silence certainly plays a role in shaping the film’s trajectory. Upon deeper examination, however, Brokeback Mountain is not a subtle work. It’s quite plainly “the gay cowboy” story, even if the word “gay” is never used in the script. Brokeback Mountain straddles the line between “mainstream” and “alternative”: it is realist and lacks (with one brief, but significant exception) action, yet at the same time is dramatic and unambiguous in its messaging.

An obvious way to think about Brokeback Mountain is as a piece of gay (or queer) cinema, a lens which for me evokes, the memory of recent releases Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight. Moonlight is a story that takes place in this modern era, one in which “gay rights” enjoy broad support (even as homophobia can clearly still take a violent toll on society). Call Me By Your Name is slightly pre-modern as far as the gay-rights conversations goes, however, since it is set in a small world populated by liberal intellectuals the significance of this time difference is somewhat negated. Brokeback Mountain thus, in a way, feels different than those two works. It opens in rural America in the 60s: a world which we can assume is predominantly homophobic. What is interesting about the film,, again, that “gayness” is rarely explicitly mentioned. As such, the degree to which it influences the plot’s dramatic tension is left at least somewhat ambiguous. Yes, we can assume that a gay couple probably couldn’t be out and proud in the world of Brokeback Mountain, but does this homophobia go so far as to prevent its characters from being out in the small world of their family and social groups? This second question is left unanswered. We never get to know whether the film’s protagonists are entirely victims of homophobia, or whether it is their internal fears and self-hate that prevent them from finding happiness.

I suppose it can be said that this ambiguity is the feature that gives Brokeback Mountain its reputation. It’s this feature that allows the film to run on, even where dramatic events are few and far between. Ennis may not have enemies, but he does have his own personality to conquer: a personality that silences him no matter who the listener is.

The film is also a joy aesthetically. It’s score is simple, but interesting. It consists of acoustic guitar riffs: plucked strings breaking out with the Brokeback mountain sunrise over the fresh morning dew. To anyone who ever over-generalizes and says they hate country music, I dare them to see this movie, and take in country as it emerges from its natural habitat.

Unfortunately it is not 2006 and I cannot appreciate how Brokeback Mountain would have come across when it first came out. Perhaps at the times its politics were more revolutionary, making its theme feel richer or at least more original than it does today. This vague gripe aside, I thoroughly appreciated the modern classic. Just remember to put on the subtitles: That Heath Ledger sure can mumble.

I Feel Pretty (2018)

 

I_Feel_Pretty.pngI Feel Pretty, a recent release starring Amy Schumer, has not exactly been a success: to use Rotten Tomatoes’ metric, audiences and critics alike have it in the low 30s. Going into the movie I hadn’t read any reviews and would not have guessed exactly where it fell short: I figured it would be a tad too reliant on crass jokes.

 

The problem I found with the film, however, was far blander. It wasn’t bad per se: it was just incredibly generic. The film tells the story of Renee Bennett (Schumer). She works for cosmetics company Lily LeClaire in a New York basement, but takes an interest in being their secretary, a defacto modelling job in a luxurious office. Bennett, however, lacks the confidence to apply for the position until she suffers a head injury which magically causes her to see herself as beautiful.

 

This is not a bad premise. It’s also not entirely original. The film’s premise is a distant cousin of the Freaky Friday concept, and closer still to the central idea of Shallow Hal. Of course, original ideas are hard to come by, so often what makes a film great is not the originality of its bare-bones plot, but how it puts its pieces together.

 

Unfortunately, creative plot construction is not I Feel Pretty’s forte either. Most of its characters are not well developed: they simply fill niches: Bennett’s unhip friends, her nice-guy love interest, her bad-boy love interest, etc. A partial exception to this rule is her quasi-boss Avery Leclaire (Michelle Williams). Leclaire is interesting to watch only in that she’s a deeper character than she initially seems to be. This does not mean she’s even nearly-interesting enough to single-handedly save the movie

 

None of this, however, gets at what really feels like the shortcoming of I Feel Pretty. Amy Schumer broke out on the big screen with 2015’s Trainwreck. She wrote and starred in the film, playing a character named Amy. Trainwreck, like other works that star their writers, was engaging because of its vaguely fourth-wall-breaking qualities. The film features comedic appearances from John Cena and Lebron James (playing himself, a sizeable role), and an excellent dark-comedic opening. In essence, Trainwreck is not simply a story, it’s a piece of filmmaking. Trainwreck is a comedic exploration of the mind of its creator, giving it a zany liveliness that generic Hollywood films lack.  Another way to put it is that Trainwreck is not “a movie,” its an “Amy Schumer movie.”

 

Of course, Schumer did not write or direct I Feel Pretty, nor has she written any other feature film since Trainwreck. Nonetheless, the character of the film left me feeling short-changed. I went to see an Amy Schumer movie. What I saw was a romantic comedy that included Amy Schumer in its cast.

 

This is a shame. Regardless of whether she literally wrote it, I Feel Pretty could have been an “Amy Schumer movie”. As someone whose career has left her subject to body shaming, and who has struck back in part by doing modelling, Schumer had a fourth-wall-breaking relationship with the premise of the film. The script could have been rife with rye, perhaps even self-aware lines. Instead, however, Schumer plays a character who is fully immersed within the film’s universe. Granted, this may be the inevitable result of the film’s premise (her psychology being transformed by the head injury), but either way, the lack of Amy in Renee undermined the film’s comedic potential. It’s worth re-mentioning the lack of depth of Schumer’s cast mates here. Perhaps the film could have worked, despite Renee’s mental transformation, if its plot weren’t so linear. We could have been exposed to side plots and characters. Instead, we’re permanently stuck with Renee Bennett, who runs her predictable course.

 

I don’t like to write negative reviews. It just doesn’t seem like a nice thing to do. In this case, however, we’re talking about a mainstream film, and I trust that amongst all the negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes mine probably does not stand out as the coldest.

More importantly, however, this is a case where criticism can be constructive. I Feel Pretty felt uninspired. And that’s a shame, because I have no reason to think that we’ve simply run out of ideas for writing gripping, inspired romantic comedies.

Thoroughbreds (2017)

Written and Directed by: Corey Finley

 

Thoroughbreds_(2017_film) Whether or not you watched the trailer going into Thoroughbreds, there is probably something you will pick up quickly: this is a film about dichotomies. The film stars two young-women actors, playing even younger (16/17 year old) characters. One, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), is immediately presented as emotionally-lacking. The character throws around some potential diagnostic labels, showing that this is the lens through which her character is viewed, but dismisses them all and never mentions them again (making it clear we should not view her as a caricature of any one condition). All we are supposed to know about her is that she does not have feelings, at least not, according to her, sadness and joy. Her counterpart is Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is timid, initially unassertive and working as an SAT tutor for Amanda. Thus we have our initial dichotomy cold-and-dark vs empathetic-and-sensitive.

 

Savvy viewers, will quickly begin to question the dichotomy between the girls. In the scene immediately following Amanda’s explanation of her condition, she can be seen playing online poker. Despite her criminal past, Amanda appears to be well off with a supportive mother (Lily, it should be noted is blatantly well off, living in a mansion and attending private school). Therefore, it would seem Amanda is gambling for fun, suggesting she does experience something resembling joy. Moreover, while I am clearly no psychologist, I was instantly troubled by the problem of what it meant for a person to feel no joy. I have heard the phrase “pleasure principle” thrown around to describe human behaviour and it sounds right to me: we seek that which makes us happy: why, therefore, would a person do anything if they don’t feel happiness?

 

While Thoroughbnreds never answers the question of whether or not Amanda does feel joy and whether or not she is a reliable narrator of her own experiences, the film does ultimately complicate its initial dichotomy. Lily is quickly revealed to have troubles of her own and is willing to act as recklessly as Amanda does. Without saying too much, we go from seeing Amanda as free of feeling and Lilly as full of feeling to seeing Amanda as bold in the face of her feelings (or lack their of) and Lily as a prisoner of her feelings.

Another (false) dichotomy lies in the character’s relationship to neuronormativity. While Amanda may be undiagnosed, we know she has been labelled as worthy of diagnosis. Lily has not been subject to any such process. Therefore we are initially led (and many viewers will no doubt fall into this trap even as the film concludes) to see Lily and Amanda in fundamentally different lights: one is sick, one is merely troubled. This distinction between sick and troubled, however, is completely arbitrary and can be described as the result of different lucky breaks playing out in the two girls’ lives.

 

Class is yet another important dichotomy in Thoroughbreds. Lily’s mansion-dwelling does not simply provide the film with charming scenery, it also serves as a metaphor: a place in which the girls’ web of secrets can hide amidst the many artifacts. Furthermore, by protecting the girls with socioeconomic privilege, the film is able to avoid other complications from intervening with their stories, and thus cut to what it wants to cover: their psychologies. The class dynamics of Thoroughbreds, however, is played out most through the character of Tim (Anton Yelchin). While Tim is introduced in a negative light, having served prison time for statutory rape and currently making money by selling drugs to kids, he is generally portrayed as timid, pathetic and perhaps even pacifistic in comparison to the film’s protagonists. While it is unclear what his previous socioeconomic status was, for much of the film he works as a dishwasher. His character thus shows the different consequences criminal behaviour can have for people in distinct socioeconomic circumstances.

 

Innocence and horror have long walked hand in hand. Surely many readers can picture the trope of a child eerily asking you to “come and play.” This too is a dichotomy Thoroughbreds embraces and manipulates. Rather than having them be haunted house props or antagonists, this film puts unsettling children at its centre. We are made to be terrified by them, but precisely because we feel for them and do not want them to be terrifying. Unless you don’t like blood, or suspense (there’s far more of that than blood), Thoroughbreds is a must see

The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.

This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.

Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza’s punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).

Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.

It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.

While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.

In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.

There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.

There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes include), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).

The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.