TIFF Review: 'Wet Bum'

Wet Bum
(Canada, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Lindsay MacKay
Starring: Julia Sarah Stone, Kenneth Welsh, Leah Pinsent, Craig Arnold, Diana Leblanc.
Wet Bum. Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Sam (Julia Sarah Stone) has a wet bum. It’s not a potty problem; it’s really one of insecurity. The titular wet bum of Wet Bum (isn’t that a fun title?) comes from Sam’s reluctance to shed her suit in the change room after swimming lessons in front of the prying eyes of her schoolmates. She simply puts her pants and sweater over her dripping one-piece and heads off to work at the local retirement home where she cleans rooms under the supervision of her mother (Leah Pinsent). Sam has some growing up to do, and an old-folks home is a good place to start.

Wet Bum swims a swell coming-of-age story as Sam discovers herself own by gaining confidence as she guides and aids the elderly tenants in the retirement home and explores the waters of her budding sexuality at the pool. The elders in Sam’s life a varied bunch: Judith (Diana Leblanc) speaks little but says a lot as she spends her days gazing out the retirement home window, while the curmudgeonly Ed (Kenneth Welsh) teaches Sam to put her own insecurities into perspective. Her swim instructor Lukas (Craig Arnold), on the other hand, is a bit of a creeper, but he’s a charming one, both friendly and threatening, and Arnold’s likable performance adds an uneasy tension to the tale as his poolside attention to Sam grows into flirting and then some.

Wet Bum could easily be an icky teacher-student study or a well-trodden tale about the things one can learn from the elderly, but newcomer Lindsay MacKay creates an excellent ensemble of multi-dimensional and well-rounded characters to freshen the tale. Wet Bum has honesty and authenticity in its portrait of adolescence, and MacKay balances a fine mix of poignant observation and subtle humour. A strong ensemble, particularly Stone and Welsh, provides complex and relatable characters for this down-to-earth tale.

MacKay also displays as terrific hand for film form as she does in crafting her characters. Wet Bum features some gorgeous underwater sequences as Sam escapes her troubles and slips underwater where she can swim free. (Her fondness for free form underwater swimming in lieu of the front crawl is a nice metaphor for her idiosyncratic independence.) MacKay and cinematographer Guy Godfree make some vibrant scenes within the bright blue waters as Sam swims about while some funky tunes by composer Brendan Canning set the mood for the flowing freeness of Sam’s underwater escapism. (The innovative contemporary soundtrack is a highlight.) Wet Bum also makes the most of its petite protagonist as the frame lines of the cinematography hug Sam’s bony body more tightly than does the sexless one-piece that rumples frumpily on her frame. Wet Bum embraces the painful awkwardness of adolescence and turns it into something beautiful.

This lovely feature debut goes swimmingly for MacKay thanks to a revelatory performance by young star Julia Sarah Stone. Stone, one of the actors chosen for the Rising Stars programme at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, gives a performance beyond her years as the shy Sam. Sam’s a fish-out-of-water of sorts in this coming-of-age tale, although she definitely seems most comfortable in the depths of the local swimming pool. Quiet, reserved, but completely remarkable in her ability to convey a range of subtle emotions simply by using her eyes, Stone is quietly powerful. Sam’s a darling, and Wet Bum is almost impossible to resist. Tap the Bum, Toronto!

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Wet Bum screens with the short film Red Alert, which I reviewed at POV. (Will link when available.)
Wet Bum and Red Alert screen:
-Sunday, Sept. 7 at 3:45 pm at the Isabel Bader
-Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 2:15 pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information.

Update: Wet Bum opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on May 15.