October 27, 2008

REVIEW: The Pool (A)

Filmmaker Chris Smith is widely known for directing 1999's cult classic and Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner American Movie, which documented Mark Borchardt's production of the even more obscure cult film Coven. Smith's last project was the little seen The Yes Men (which I skipped because it seemed to be the same as The Corporation and they were released within months of each other in 2003), and he's generally known as a documentarian who focuses on uniquely American stories. If you're reading this with a raised eyebrow, it's probably because you've seen American Movie and you can't imagine how the same director could make a fictional drama set and filmed in India (with dialogue in Hindi, no less). Well, as it turns out, the original source material was a short story written by Smith's longtime producing partner Randy Russell, and it takes place in Iowa, not India.

It's a notable detail because it further demonstrates the brilliant filmmaking talent on display in The Pool; the film is so affectionately made that you'd believe Chris Smith was making an autobiographical movie about growing up in his hometown (the truth is that he became enraptured by the local culture during a trip several years ago). India or Iowa, the result is the same: a light yet extremely enriching drama that stays with you long after you leave the theater.

Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) is an affable, illiterate eighteen year-old working and living on his own in Goa, India. His rural upbringing instilled in him an innocence and work ethic that would have surely guaranteed him success in life - if only he had ever received an education. As is the case with so many millions of laborers around the world, Venkatesh can't get ahead because he's too busy surviving in the present, working long hours as a "room boy" at a hotel and spending his off-hours selling plastic bags on the street with his eleven year-old best friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah). When he's not working or pondering his future, Venkatesh is perched in a tree, longingly gazing into the backyard of a wealthy gentleman, where a sparklingly clean swimming pool sits like an oasis in the desert. Rejecting Jhangir's suggestion to sneak in for a dip because he doesn't want to be considered a "thief", Venkatesh commits to somehow gaining access to the pool by charming the man and his gorgeous daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan).

What's remarkable about The Pool is that
so many wonderfully memorable moments are harvested from such an incredibly simple story. Like the plants around the pool that Venkatesh ends up tending, the film grows and blossoms without relying on major twists or wide emotional swings. It's no wonder Chris Smith won a Special Jury Prize last year at Sundance for the "singularity of vision" he demonstrates in the film. There are universal experiences that we can all relate to, but there is no great effort to make a grand statement about work or education, friendship or love, life or death. There are just four characters who are trying to make it through a formative period in each of their lives, and Smith's ability to direct his amateur cast but still capture their natural behavior is truly amazing - surely an advantage he has as an experienced documentarian.

In a narrative sense, the similarity between The Pool and Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop is striking; there may not be two films this year that are peas from the same pod in that way. Stylistically they are quite different, however, evidenced by the brilliant color on display in The Pool. Working in a much more vibrant setting (Goa, India, compared to Queens, NY), the camera work by Chris Smith himself brings the city and the story to life in vivid detail, making The Pool often feel like a documentary on the Travel Channel. Furthermore, Smith's film feels more delicately and thoughtfully made, like a tasty samosa carefully made with just the right amount of curried spices, then slowly cooked until the full flavor is realized.

Watch this film, then head to your favorite Indian restaurant to extend the enjoyable journey...

Daydreaming in the tree with Jhangir on one day, Venkatesh describes how the sun would beat down on him in the pool and the cool water would feel refreshing on his skin. It's a tender moment that's also a decent descriptor for our experience watching this film. The Pool sits among the bombastic blockbusters and pretentious indies this year as an unassuming and near-perfect gem that reminds you why you love going to the movies. I recommend you take a dip and test out the water for yourself.

Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 49/50= 98% = A


  1. Hadn't even heard of this. Will keep an eye out...

  2. I know you and Sam both loved this, so in turn, I cant wait to see it.

  3. I think I've seen you speak of American Movie over at BC, Fletch, so you and others might be in that "Uh?" crowd that I mention at the beginning. It seems like an odd departure for Chris Smith, but like I said, he has the advantage that another hands-on or stage director wouldn't have had here because he seemingly "lets" the actors just do their thing.

    Well I saw that you just reviewed and liked Chop Shop, Nick, so I expect you'd fall in line on this one as well.

  4. American Movie sits proudly on my Top 10 docs list, so I've been eagerly anticipating this, but certainly wondering how Chris Smith managed to get into a film like this (like you mentioned in your piece, Daniel).

    I did listen to the Film Forum's podcast Q&A with Chris Smith, and it was really interesting: how he cast the kids, where the came from, how he directed them in their native language, how the reception to the film was in India, etc. Cool stuff.

    Nice work here, Daniel. You are, as always, tireless and prolific.

  5. Aha, maybe I had you confused with Fletch, Evan. Thanks for your kind words, and the heads up on that podcast. I'll have to give it a listen.

    I read an interview with Chris Smith somewhere else (maybe IFC) where he also talked about the production. It sounded pretty interesting. Movies like this and Chop Shop always make it seem like, "Oh, anybody can just grab a digicam and head somewhere unusual and make a low-budget indie," but I know there is so much more to it.

  6. Well, Dan I am thrilled you have written a review on this film, which presently ranks in my Top 5 of 2008, and for which I wrote an equally enthusiastic assessment for weeks back. Your fecund presentation here befits the film's excellence, and I really feel great that you promoting a film that has been and will be difficult to come by. Like the films of the great Satyajit Ray, this film digs deep into a country's soul, all the more remarkable that it was directed by an American.

    Thanks for remembering what I had said about this film, Nick.

  7. Thanks, Sam, and great point about the fact that an American successfully directed such a localized film. Like I said, you'd never otherwise suspect it wasn't a young Indian filmmaker behind the camera.

    This is certainly in my top 3 of the year for non-documentary films, I think even #1 at this point, but with so many more hyped movies on the way I'm only confident that it will stay in the top 5 or 10. We'll find out...

  8. Having just re-watched American Movie, this is especially intriguing to me. Thanks for the recommend! Any movie you rate an "A" I'm pretty damn excited to watch.

  9. Speaking of which, I need to rewatch American Movie.

    Thanks as always, Scott. This is one that I highly recommend - with reservations. I know some people will get nothing from it, and I don't want to oversell it...

  10. Good point, out of the 7 people in the theater, 2 walked out half way through. But definitely a D.T.!

  11. Their loss! Silly Milwaukeeans/Milwaukites/Milwaukeers...?

    Well I'm glad you saw it anyway. Definitely a DT bordering on an LC. Didn't quite there. Occasionally a GT, too!


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