Waterbaby movie review: Immersive, sonorous nostalgic trip down boyhood's lane
Waterbaby rekindles old memories and often even sail us away from the shores of adulthood.
Waterbaby, the latest offering of Large Short Films released on Children’s Day, is an effective and sonorous nostalgic trip down boyhood lane.
Creditably, it picks up a universal story about overcoming private fears — which seem all the more monstrous in childhood — and using a clever narrative device or two, turns it into a mostly rewarding viewing experience. It manages to tide over the occasional missteps and the regulation cinematography with immersive sound and production design, and an intriguing, unassuming central performance. In doing so, Pia Shah crafts a film that achieves its implicit goal of briefly whooshing us away to the bittersweet days of our childhood.
Melvin is a 10-year-old boy who is scared to swim. It makes him the butt of jokes at school in Goa. He finds solace and enrichment in drawing and watching the adventures of Boy Aqua on television, even while his parents bicker and tussle in the background. Things take a curious turn when Debby, the new girl, joins the school. Our protagonist is enraptured. He daydreams and draws his time away thinking of her. One fine day, she invites the class over for her birthday pool party. Here, he is confronted by his bullies, the prospect of stepping into the pool and most importantly, facing his worst fear.
We have all faced Melvin’s predicament in varying forms during our green days. We have all turned towards the comforts of the imagination in dealing with the complexities of growing up, a great deal of which escaped our limited understanding of the world. And who can ever forget the sweet, swelling rush of a childhood crush or, dare I say, first love. Keenly aware of her audience, Shah bathes her images in soft, tenderly swoony light. The appurtenances of childhood are scattered strategically throughout the film. I did have my reservations with the overt use of water-based symbols, from the goldfish to the superhero. The justifications for their appearance in the film differ in degree of conviction. Considering the short format of the film, Waterbaby could have benefitted with using one less symbol, therefore ensuring a more substantive engagement with the more potent and narratively relevant one. But the quirky manner in which Shah uses Melvin’s drawings to progress the narrative buoys the film above its weaknesses, drawing us closer to the lead character and occasionally feeling his quickening heartbeat as he gazes absent-mindedly at Debby.
Earlier this year, the excellent Eighth Grade had conjured a sensorium replete with the sights, sounds and sighs of early teenage in a searingly immersive coming-of-age experience. Waterbaby is indeed a different film. But it shares a DNA strand or two with it. Shah’s close, welcome attention to sound design and a key sequence revolving around water link the two films. But only occasionally does Waterbaby manage to pull the viewer into the narrative completely and experience the world from Melvin’s eyes. Some of the secondary performances are partly to blame. Then there was Eighth Grade’s awe-inspiring way of making the normal look fresh, aided by superlative cinematography which, had it been employed more imaginatively, could have enriched the Waterbaby experience even further.
Shah’s film excels at employing a rich production and sound design to occasionally make Melvin’s experience our own. We are rooting for Melvin throughout the film, keenly listening to him think during his quiet periods, and mooning away with him as he daydreams of love. The earnestness of Shah’s film is somewhat punctured by the tactical placements that poke out sometimes. But our innate instinct to witness Melvin come closer to Debby despite the obstacles he faces, coupled with the nostalgia that the film conjures, adds to the viewing experience. While far from technically perfect or innovative, Waterbaby makes for a good watch that will definitely rekindle old memories and often even sail us away from the shores of adulthood.
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