Hand jobs, masturbation, aggressive toilet seat rubbing, hemorrhoids. That’s the first five minutes of Wetlands. The next 105 minutes pile it on from there. Anal fissures, anal blisters, erect penises, guys who like to be sh*t on, guys who get off on shaving girls, boobs, p*ssy (if you’re offended by that word, be warned that it is used more times than it is even shown), piss, sh*t, semen, p*ssy mucus, blood, vomit, a sexualized avocado pit, vegetable masturbation, so much more semen, drugs, sex, brothels, Catholic imagery and … bloody tampons. There should be a clear understanding that Wetlands is a disgusting film, a NSFW movie that can only be released with an NC-17 rating in its current cut. And yet, it is a surprisingly sweet film.
Wetlands tells the story of Helen (Carla Juri), a German teen who is raunchy, candid and frequently off-putting. She holds a fascination with body fluids and her own sexuality, loves her brother and her best friend, and more than anything would simply like to see her divorced parents get back together. Based on a bestselling German novel, Charlotte Roche’s Feuchtgebiete, the movie is kind of a romance (in its own, bizarre way) and also one about friendship, but more than anything, it is the story of a young woman cutting her own path in the world, trying to coalesce a possibly-traumatic past into a hopeful future. When a (gross and gnarly) shaving accident lands Helen in the hospital, she has time to think back on both her childhood and the recent past, while developing an interesting relationship with her male nurse and scheming to use her rectal injury as a tool to maybe, just possibly, get her folks back together.
The film’s narrative structure fluidly moves through time, from snippets of childhood memories to drug-fueled all nighters, back to Helen’s hospital room, etc. But the movement is never confusing, and is a credit to director and co-writer David Wnendt. As you can tell from the first paragraph, this is a movie that could easily have taken the path of sensationalism, seeking to shock and awe viewers into gross submission. Instead, much of the perversity serves to better understand Helen, and Wnendt shows a surprising care and deftness in moving the film along (though the film does get lost in itself sometimes). The movie is gross and perverse, to be sure, but it is also deftly filmed and cleverly edited, and manages to sharply walk the line of not sexualizing the teenaged Helen while still fully exploring and showing her sexuality. As for Helen, Carla Juri’s performance is fantastic. Helen is gross and sometime repulsive, yet Juri makes her instantly likable and keeps a subtle warmth underneath Helen’s surface. Juri speaks English (her next film is a British one) and I’m really excited to see what becomes of her career.
Ultimately, Wetlands is not a great film, and there are some beats here and there that do not quite work. But it is an interesting, often funny film with some clever direction and a fantastic lead performance. In other words, it’s kind of the quintessential film festival flick. Only, you know, with copious amounts of semen.
Wetlands premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and screened at the South by Southwest 2014 Film Festival.
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