Imagine being trapped inside your own body. Imagine being set free.
It's typical Hollywood to take a realistic story and give it a buff and gloss job to maybe make it something spectacular but altogether hollow. A recent example of this would involve the reworking of the John Nash story done by Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind. The film is still decent and has impact, but by glossing over the more unpleasant aspects of Nash's life Howard has done something of a disservice.
I mention this only because this does not seem to be the case with Neal Jimenez's The Waterdance, a story about dealing with spinal injuries and paralysis with frank realism that could probably only come from someone who has gone down that path. I'd be remiss to point out that Jimenez suffers from paralysis. Columbia / TriStar has brought this low budget drama to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Joel Garcia (Eric Stoltz—Memphis Belle, 2 Days in the Valley) is a writer who wakes up in a hospital after a hiking accident and finds that he's broken his neck. Paralyzed from the waist down, he's transferred to a spinal injury recovery ward where he will need to learn to cope with his new condition. Joel finds support through his lover, who also happens to be his editor and married, Anna (Helen Hunt—Twister, Cast Away). Joel also has to cope with an odd lot of characters also living on his ward. There's a down-on-his-luck ladies man named Raymond (Wesley Snipes—Blade, Major League), an expecting father named Victor (Tony Genaro—a That Guy, most notably from Tremors) and a racist biker named Bloss (William Forsythe—Raising Arizona, Luck Of The Draw).
Everyone on the ward seems to have their own issues to deal with. Joel, for instance, is trying to get Anna to leave her husband for him, only he's received a serious setback since he doesn't believe Anna will want to leave a secure relationship to be with a paraplegic. Raymond, a born again ne'er-do-well, is trying to make amends with his estranged family, but when this doesn't work he turns to Jack Daniels. Bloss is a racist loudmouth who's counting on a lawsuit to put him on easy street. If you've seen these types of movies before, you've already figured out that nobody on the ward really much likes each other, but as the movie goes on they'll form a bond and friendship to help them come to grips with their new disabilities. This is all culminated in a trip to a strip club with the hospital's van, for which Bloss has managed to pinch the keys.
This is not to say The Waterdance is a bad movie. Far from it. It's just that The Waterdance isn't really a tremendously compelling film. The range of emotions the characters go through are realistic; there are levels of frustration they all feel as they come to grips with their lives, as well as moments of self-pity. I can't really imagine what it would be like to suddenly be unable to walk, but I imagine I'd feel not too dissimilar than this bunch of characters would. Bloss takes out his frustration by exhibiting his brash, racist side, while Raymond lives in a fantasy world where women just seem to fall all over him. Joel, on the other hand, tries to come to grips with his relationship with Anna, but lives in a state of denial through most of the film, exhibiting a level of cynicism and making flippant remarks when asked about his condition. Everything about the characters smacks of realism, and this is one of the true strengths of this film.
Director Neal Jimenez manages to give us some creative camera work, especially at the film's opening as we see everything through the eyes of Joel, who's head is held motionless by a metal halo. I'll have to admit it was a little disorienting and dizzying to watch ceiling tiles whiz by, and it was tremendously annoying to be stuck staring at a flickering fluorescent light for about 30 seconds. This was a good move that helps the viewer get in Joel's head in the early going.
The acting in The Waterdance is surprisingly excellent, with the exception of an understated Eric Stoltz who wouldn't know good acting if it ran up to him and screamed in his ear. There's one scene where Stoltz is supposed to exhibit his "moment of clarity" and he really tries to be emotional but it comes across as phony. A rumpled and unglamorous Helen Hunt shows off the acting chops that would later win her an Academy Award for As Good As It Gets as well as a handful of Golden Globes for her work on the television series Mad About You. Snipes is at the absolute best that I've seen him at, and I was surprised at the quality performance given by the usually lackluster William Forsythe. It's Forsythe's Bloss that eventually becomes the lynchpin around which the other characters evolve; as Bloss grows the other characters grow with him. It's a large burden for Forsythe to bear, but he carries the load farther than I thought possible.
The video transfer is merely adequate, but is largely uneven. At times The Waterdance looks terrific, but at other times, especially during scenes that take place at night, there's a high level of graininess that occurs. At other times blacks simply aren't as deep as they could (or should) be, and at other times a lack of flesh tones make the characters look like Boo Radley (and I'm not referring to the scenes where the injured characters are supposed to look pale). During other scenes there were hints of noticeable edge enhancement, but it was less than the usual level of edging than the typical transfer from Columbia. All in all it wasn't distracting. The audio transfer is a flat two-channel presentation, but since The Waterdance depends on conversation instead of flashy special effects and 'splosions there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. The Waterdance is light on special features, providing only a theatrical trailer and filmographies of the stars and directors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I mentioned before, The Waterdance isn't necessarily a powerful film. I got the sense that much of what happened in this movie was somewhat autobiographical with little to no embellishment. In some ways, this is a good thing in that extra effort was made to make the characters realistic. Beyond that, however, we end up with some stereotypical storytelling that's used to add some sort of poignancy. The fact that Bloss will end up befriending Raymond before the film ends, for example, should be painfully obvious no more than 15 minutes after the starting credits are done.
The other real fault I found with The Waterdance lay in the resolution in the relationship between Joel and Anna. While this may have been a realistic ending for these characters, it really just kind of came out of left field, and when things come out of left field like that the emotional impact that they should have had is lost when you end up scratching your head and trying to figure out why something just happened. As a contrast, Bloss' change of character seemed to be a gradual one, so it was believable when the character matured. I also felt like most of the interaction between Joel and Anna, something that was genuine throughout most of the film, was suddenly invalidated in one fell swoop. This is not good storytelling and it shows the lack of experience by writer/director Jimenez.
The Waterdance presents a number of amazing acting performances and a few good moments, but it all adds up to being a mediocre film not-too-different than something you'd find on The Lifetime Network (less the naughty language and nekkid women, of course).
The Waterdance is free to go after an appeal.
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