'Wetlands' Wraps A Terrific Lead Performance In A Messy Story [Sundance 2014 Review]

There's one really good reason to see the German film Wetlands, and her name is Carla Juri. She's a firecracker; I keep hearing people refer to her as "the German Greta Gerwig," and the comparison is easy to see. But Juri has her own skills and appeal, and her performance is the most watchable one I've seen so far at Sundance this year.

That's saying something, as the subject matter of Wetlands can be... off-putting. The story hinges on — and there's no delicate way to put this — an anal fissure suffered by Juri's character Helen during a grooming session gone wrong. Helen is a young woman who has an unusually deep body consciousness; she's more intimately in touch with her body than any young woman in a recent film. While she's a prat clearly damaged by her parents' divorce, Helen is still a promising, even inspiring character. By the end, however, Wetlands throws away her potential in favor of a too-familiar quirky love story.

Wetlands, based on a book that tore up sales charts in Germany, is directed by David Wnendt, whose last film was the Fantastic Fest entry Combat Girls. So it's no surprise that he's pretty good at giving Juri a framework in which to create an exaggerated and unusually self-actualized character.

Helen's approach to her own body tends towards the odd, sure. Her character introduction begins with talk of hemorrhoids, and moves quickly to her explanation about exposing her vagina to infection at every chance, the better to test the resilience of her particular flora. (The sequence we see involves a public toilet seat.) But that, and Helen's frank and in control approach to sex, makes for a pleasant relief from the body-shy tendencies we tend to see in in most films. If you need a glib phrase, call it a romantic comedy by David Cronenberg.

The introductory sequence seems determined to out-do the toilet scene in Trainspotting then dives into a winding CG riff very reminiscent of the Fight Club credit sequence. I don't casually mention those key late-'90s films, as Wetlands' style is deeply rooted in the kinetic and easily digestible setpieces that became popular in the era. When it comes time to shift into more weighty dramatic material, Wnendt fails the trick of balancing fast-paced fun with real drama, and Wetlands loses its way.

The film's problems are rooted in everything that isn't Juri's performance. None of the other characters are particularly compelling, and a few feel like legacy remnants of a too-faithful adaptation of the novel. A long drug sequence probably works in the novel but feels completely superfluous here, and many scenes with Helen's so-called best friend are similarly adrift. Key information in her family's past is broached in an awkward manner meant to represent Helen's own difficulty in facing up to her childhood, but the effect on screen is merely alienating.

For too much of the story Helen is confined to a hospital as she recuperates from surgery to close the fissure. Not only does the energy fall away, to be replaced by languor, but she falls for her hunky blond nurse (Christoph Letkowski) and her oddly appealing character turns more towards that of a twisted Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That feels like a betrayal of her nature. And while we learn more about her messed-up family background, even the moments that want to be powerful tend to falter.

And yet I would recommend watching, just for Juri's performance. I'll be shocked if we don't start to see her in more films made outside Germany; she seems like a phenomenon waiting to happen.

/Film rating: 5 out of 10