Like Mother, Like Daughter: A 13-Year-Old’s Summer Education

Christine Jeffs’ Rain , from her own screenplay, based on the novel by Kirsty Gunn, oozes out of New Zealand as a broodingly sensual tale of a restless mother and daughter on a damp vacation drenched with desire. This is a film that is literally soaked with atmosphere, and yet its location remains unclear until the very end. Furthermore, there is no back story to explain or motivate the five major characters as they plunge into the wilds of adolescent loss and awakening.

Teenage rites of passage on the screen were generally restricted to the male of the species until very recently. Now there is not only a flood of females on the cusp of cinematic adulthood, but also an influx of women directors to provide gender authenticity. Unfortunately, political correctness does not guarantee an absence of banality, and so one must pick and choose from the persistently pioneering efforts in the genre.

Ms. Jeffs avoids banality by simply dispensing with most of the appurtenances of narrative, and occasionally even of continuity. But she compensates with striking images of an eloquent aimlessness in the unguarded lives of her characters. She is also assisted in her endeavors by the uncanny casting of newcomer Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki (can’t you see that name on a marquee?) as 13-year-old Janey, the daughter of middle-aged Kate (Sarah Peirse), whom she resembles to a doppelgänger extreme. It follows that Janey would borrow her mother’s dress in which to be seduced by her mother’s amiable beach-bum lover, Cady (Marton Csokas).

There is an intentionally dream-like haziness to the cinematography, as well as an expressionistically suggestive writhing in Ms. Peirse’s incarnation of Kate. Significantly, she is the only character who doesn’t and presumably can’t swim. If she did, the functionality and impersonality of the act would reduce the visual constancy of her unappeasable sexual hunger. Janey observes her mother without judging her, though in her inner monologue she expresses impatience with her father for not laying down the law to his shamelessly unfaithful wife. Nonetheless, Janey feels that she is steadily growing into her mother, and her wondrously searching eyes project both awe and fear at what is in store for her as a grown woman.

In one scene, as Kate is making love to Cady aboard his beached fishing and pleasure boat, Janey’s plumpish, cuckolded father (Alistair Browning) emerges as a mysteriously passive paterfamilias, bringing two ice-cream cones to Janey and her clinging little brother, Jim (Aaron Murphy). The sequencing and framing of shots creates a moment of mini-suspenseful apprehension that the father is carrying the cones to his wife and her lover, which would make an entirely different movie in the French style.

The one major flaw of the film is its surprisingly forced and arbitrary climax, which is unworthy of all the nuanced feelings that have preceded it without really leading up to it. On the plus side is an extraordinarily extended communal-dance spectacle in the family’s summer house at the edge of the sea. The women in the vacation community do almost all the “social” dancing while the men drink and play cards. Kate dances a bit with Cady, but mostly she swings and sways in enraptured solitude to slow 70’s-style ballads from Down Under. Kate is bizarre enough, but the dancing figure that is most striking is that of an unidentified woman down on the beach almost in the water, dancing in perfect rhythm with the other dancers up a small incline in the house.

The more I have thought about this solitary but not lonely figure, the more I speculate that she represents a metaphorical extension of Kate’s essentially self-absorbed sexual yearnings. But the image can stand by itself without interpretation, simply for its formal virtuosity.

There are so many first-time directors materializing from all over that one has to invoke the law of averages to bring some semblance of sanity to the currently insane state of production and distribution. Hence, this promising beginning may be the best that Ms. Jeffs will do, or it can be merely the prelude to a career of singular brilliance. It is certainly clear that a movie like Rain will never be conceived for a mainstream audience in the global marketplace: It is too preciously personal for that. But it has more than a few moments that are insightful enough to be fondly remembered in the endlessly challenging maze of moviegoing.

Naipaul Wannabe

Ismail Merchant’s The Mystic Masseur , from a screenplay by Caryl Phillips, based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul, resumes Mr. Merchant’s long journey through the ironies and idiocies of the Anglo-Indian experience, culminating with the much-misunderstood and underrated Cotton Mary (1999), in which the hatefully manipulative title character gives the critics the opportunity to hate the movie instead of treating it, as I did, as an illustration of what British imperial snobbery can do to a susceptible colonial mind. The Mystic Masseur is a more benign-though even more ironic-treatment of this theme. One is reminded also of E.M. Forster’s observation in A Passage to India that as the great vice of the British is hypocrisy, the great vice of the Indians is suspiciousness.

The film is set in the Trinidad of the 1950’s, when the island-with its mixed African and Indian populations-is still a British colony with all the royal trappings. Mr. Naipaul’s serio-comic novel deals with the cultural adventures of a young schoolteacher, Ganesh Ramsumair (played in the film by Aasif Mandvi), as he sets out to write a book as instructively important as the books he teaches at the school in Port of Spain, Trinidad. His superiors at the school do not share his view of his destiny, and when he learns that his father has died in the island village in which he grew up, he seizes the opportunity to return home for the funeral in order to make new plans for his future.

Welcomed by his aunt (Zohra Sehgal) and his father’s neighbor, Ramlogan (Om Puri), Ganesh decides to settle down in the more restful atmosphere of his childhood, and to devote all his time to his writing. He marries Ramlogan’s beautiful young daughter Leela (Ayesha Dharker), and the newlyweds move to a nearby village, where Ganesh begins to write his sagacious “masterpiece”: A Hundred and One Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion . Despite the support and encouragement of the villagers, the book fails to find favor with the general public. To support his family, Ganesh follows in his father’s footsteps by becoming the village healer. With a little pre-arrangement, Ganesh performs a dramatic “healing” of his former Port of Spain landlady’s son. Soon he is being hailed throughout the island as the Mystical Masseur, and even his books begin to sell everywhere, though he never attains his earliest dreams of becoming a giant of English literature, like the Nobel Prize–winning Mr. Naipaul.

Overwhelmed by his sudden fame and riches, Ganesh decides to enter the political arena in order to help the Indian community in Trinidad. But he finds he is comparatively a child in the realm in which the British imperial authorities, personified by James Fox’s Mr. Stewart, are past masters. After Ganesh finds himself frustrated and co-opted at every turn, he abandons the hurly-burly of the political scene to return to the sedentary life of books and family.

Mr. Merchant has managed to sustain a gently ironic tone throughout, with the help of a bustling comic performance from Om Puri as Ganesh’s well-meaning but meddlesome father-in-law, who is volubly outraged when Ganesh fails to dedicate his first book to him. There is a sweet purity to Ganesh’s character that may or may not play well in Western eyes, but it is there just the same, and without apology.

Truth or Dare?

Henry Barrial’s Some Body , from a screenplay by Stephanie Bennett and Henry Barrial, professes to be the story of Samantha, a Los Angeles schoolteacher played by Stephanie Bennett, who not only co-wrote the screenplay with Mr. Barrial, but also drew from her own real-life experiences as a struggling and partying actress in Los Angeles to fill out her character and the plot. Actually, a writing credit may not be entirely accurate, considering the largely improvisatory and pseudo-documentary methods used to put the picture together. Mr. Barrial contributed his own unhappy experiences in Los Angeles as a struggling actor, and many of the cast members played themselves as Samantha’s past lovers. Thus we have an incestuous world of acting losers let loose in a world half-imagined and half-remembered.

Geoffrey Pepos, billed as the editor, composer and director of photography, rehearsed the improvisations with a digital video camera he had learned to use previously on documentaries, dance and music videos, commercials and several short films. The resulting fusion of fiction and nonfiction at low cost is hardly all that original, but combine that with a pretty girl performing a psychic striptease with her own body, and you don’t have to go very far before the director is invoking the sacred names of Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes as the pioneers of an ultra-realism achieved by goosing the actors until they discarded every phony mannerism in their repertoire. Ms. Bennett is worth watching, and her story is weirdly detailed enough to prove once more that truth is too strange for good fiction.