For generations, audiences and filmmakers have been trained to ask but one question of a movie: “What happens next?” It’s the culture of demanding a narrative-driven piece, whose every move is expected to surge the story forward. This unfortunate insistence, more often than not, leaves all of the other possibilities of cinema left on the table. Every now and then, however, a film comes along that works in a different way. For Kate Can’t Swim, filmmakers Jennifer Alcott and Josh Helman ask a different question – “Who are these people and how can we really get to know them?” This remarkably understated yet powerful movie isn’t about working up to some big moment. Not that there isn’t one to build up to – there certainly is. Instead, it’s about meeting a set of characters and learning what they’re all about through a playfully edited set of vignettes following a seemingly mundane linear thread of four friends spending a weekend in the woods. Conversations are caught mid-stream, rarely relating to previous scenes, building portraits of human beings rather than focusing on plot. In a stunning reversal of conventional cinematic wisdom, it is the narrative which serves the characters and not the other way around.
Celeste Arias plays the titular character, who reconnects with her best friend (played by Alcott) after she gets back from time abroad. Her pal has committed to a new partner – who is surprisingly a man, since she had up until now dated mostly women. She beckons Kate and her long-time boyfriend (Grayson DeJesus) to come meet her new beau up at his cabin in the country. There they all meet (Helman plays the new man in the picture) and get to know each other while frolicking in a gorgeous lakeside setting. Slowly, we watch episode after episode of the characters engaging in pairs, in threes, and all together, catching glimpses of who we think they are. It’s all done in an incredibly naturalistic way. None of these people are terribly outstanding or remarkable. They’re very familiar, and kind of boring, almost. But all along the way, the careful viewer will see how the camera lingers on actors who are brilliant at using body language and gestures to reveal more true aspects of their characters than any dialogue ever could.
When events come to a boil, it’s very unexpected. Even the characters in the film seem taken by surprise. It is then and only then that we get to see who these people really are beyond the facade of small talk, forced interactions and superficial behaviors. It’s striking because each and every one of them turns out to be almost the exact opposite of who they were playing at being through most of the film. Once that reality sets in, a whole new exploration of these people comes into play for the audience, truly a revolution from what the first 2/3 of the narrative felt like. Director Helman and his co-writer/producer Alcott (they’re also a couple in real life) present a space where we are forced to ask questions about who everybody we know really is – and the people we ourselves are, whom we constantly hide from our conscious minds. It’s a stunning triumph in visual language transmitted through a patient and discreet camera watching gifted actors. A second viewing may be required to capture all the richness and nuance of this work.