Monday 18 November 2013

The Sound of Running Water (2013)

Director: Suzanne Steinberg
Stars: Sheena Ware, Chelsea Claire, Sandy Penny, Peter Ross Stephens and Dawn Nixon

Obviously a socially aware movie from its earliest scenes, it's no surprise when the dedication pops up at the end: 'This movie is dedicated to those who are mentally ill and living on the streets.' Suzanne Steinberg, who wrote and directed, takes a confrontational approach to this topical subject, illustrating themes through the encounters one young lady has over a period of a single night. She's Sophia and she's searching for her mentally ill mother, who has disappeared, though why she's searching we're never quite sure. Sure, she's concerned, but that's not all of it; often she seems to be searching more for understanding as for her actual mother. How could this situation have arisen? What fault could be assigned and what blame thrown? Was it anything she did? Crucially, while Sophia asks questions, she finds that answers aren't forthcoming, at least not to her satisfaction, and I'm not sure the film has a conclusion. It certainly raises an issue, but it doesn't offer a solution or even an explanation.

I'm not sure about the title either. Steinberg has said on the film's Facebook page that she wanted to draw a comparison with running water because it cannot be held; 'it always finds a hole to run through and into.' Perhaps the title is her way of expressing that mental illness is often obvious but still difficult to define, any suggested explanation finding that hole to run through and escape. Maybe it's describing Mary, Sophia's mother, who is an odd and uttainable target for most of the film, almost a MacGuffin, as she's clearly of importance to Sophia but not to us because we're not given any connection to her. That could be a statement in itself, about 'those who are mentally ill and living on the streets,' because, like a waitress Sophia clashes with, we make judgements about them without having any actual knowledge. Sophia doesn't seem to have much either, as there's no science in how she searches, no detective work; she just searches. And what any of this has to do with sound, I have no idea.

This leads me to believe that this isn't really about Mary, it's about Sophia. She's a constant throughout and the film derives its tone from Sheena Ware's powerful performance. Most scenes are less to do with Mary and more to do with how Sophia feels about her; one entire scene has precisely nothing to do with Mary, only working as insight into Sophia and her flagging dedication. For a while, I wondered how deep Steinberg was going, whether it was Sophia who was mentally ill and sharing her illness with us. If true, it would suggest that most, if not all, of the other characters, including Mary, are part of her delusion. It may even be that Sophia is Mary, revisiting a younger version of herself. Who knows? Such are the side effects of making a film about mental illness, especially one shot in black and white that tells its story in monologues. Is that a soliloquy or just crazy talk? It's all about the interpretation. For the record, I think it is a simple story told straight, but I'm prepared to be wildly wrong.
The monologue approach means that this is very much a film for its actors, however arty it decides to get at points. There are some interesting angles but I'm not sure why some of them were chosen, why we get so many close ups of half a face or why some shots are deliberately blurry. Mostly the camera moves or cuts to keep us focused while a character, usually Sophia, is blazing through another speech. This works well when she's alone, such as a scene where she rages alone in a tunnel. She looks really confined, as if the walls are closing in and losing her in the shadows, while dark sounds of the city at night provide the soundtrack, full of cars and sirens; this is a 28 minute short with no score. It's less effective in a diner, where Sophia is surrounded by space, the sound unfortunately picks up the air conditioning and her solo performance becomes a dialogue with an annoyingly judgemental waitress. Like she was ever going to get a tip? I don't think so.

Sheena Ware does a capable job here after a shaky start. Her first conversation is probably her weakest and it doesn't bode well, but she drew me in strongly as the picture ran on. This is her only IMDb credit, which does suggest that she's only going to get better. Chelsea Claire is already getting better; this is certainly the best I've seen her act thus far, far better than her turn in Pizza Shop: The Movie and with much better delivery than she had in The Midnightmare. I'm looking forward to seeing her in We Three, but I wonder if acting may always play second fiddle to her work as a model, because on that front she's astounding. Sandy Penny, last seen in Cowboy Zombies, is decent as the waitress but the role called for someone much older than she is. Dawn Nixon, who appears to be in every Arizona feature of the last couple of years, joins the film late as Mary, but her part, which could and perhaps should have been the most overt, fizzled away. In the end, it was all always about Sophia.

The Sound of Running Water can be viewed for free on YouTube.

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