Wednesday, April 14, 2021


What Lies Below is what happens when the Netflix front page becomes the assignment editor for entertainment sections all over the web. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People open the app, say, “what’s that doing there?”, and click over for a look, thus keeping it on the list and driving more clicks. It’s the reason for the streamer’s top ten, to fuel that sense of wanting in on whatever everyone else is watching. As if we know how much of everyone that is. And then it trends on social media and it gets written up here and there. (Guess I’m guilty of it, too, now and again.) It is a peculiar thing, especially given Netflix’s strategy to inflate viewership numbers and hide any real deep dive objective data on the use of their service. When, say, a seven-year-old Mark Wahlberg movie bubbles up on the list, how many people are watching how much of it? Who’s to say? So here we are now with a cheap indie genre movie, the feature debut of writer/director Braden R. Duemmler. The streaming rights have been snapped up by Netflix to keep the content a churning. It’s no mystery why people click. It’s right there. It has an interesting hook — teenager meets her single mother’s new boyfriend at their cabin in the woods and it turns out he’s a mysterious hunk who might be a sea monster in disguise? — and a poster emphasizing the shirtless guy. You can see why a certain number of people glimpsing it among the squares while browsing would hover over and let it roll for a few.

The movie itself is sluggish, and full of the kind of cheap, flat, expository, subtext-free dialogue you might hear in a lesser Lifetime Original Movie. The plot plays like the faintest copy of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank — dangerous guy might be a threat to his girlfriend’s daughter — transposed into a 90’s softcore mystery — without quite getting that steamy or mysterious — and crossed with one of those darkly missing-the-point post-Twilight paranormal relationships. It never quite digs deep into the potentially messy and uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics, instead skimming the surface for cheap dramatics. The mother (Mena Suvari) keeps thinking her daughter (Ema Horvath) is just trying to mess things up for the sake of keeping her mom all to herself. But we see the guy (Trey Tucker) sleepwalking into the lake and licking his lips and lurking in corners. And there’s that glowing light burbling in the middle of that lake at night. What’s up with that? Maybe it’s like evil Cocoon, I idly thought. The movie occasionally generates some modicum of squirmy tension as it sluggishly, somnambulantly trudges through its mostly predictable, partially convincing paces. Then it takes a swerve into outright horror for the final twenty minutes or so, with high-contrast red and blue lighting, and tense closeups, and violence, screams, and shocks. It gets pretty squirmy there in the final stretch, and ends on a note far more hopeless than I’d thought it’d get. In the end, it’s the sort of bad movie that makes you suspect its maker might have a good one in him one day.

Still, as lousy as that movie can be, I’m disappointed and a little embarrassed to admit I nonetheless liked it slightly more than another recent fishy Netflix movie, the Academy Award-nominated documentary My Octopus Teacher. It follows nature documentary cinematographer Craig Foster as he goes diving and meets an octopus. He feels a connection with this creature, who seems to recognize him and even forms something of a friendship. It’s clearly very powerful for Foster, who tells us in awestruck tones about what the animal taught him about its habits and habitat. That’s all well and good, but directors Philippa Ehrlich and James Reed are far more focused on the “my” than the “octopus,” and it never quite escapes the feeling it’s an intensely personal journey of one individual, the film of which can’t quite universalize in the ways to which it’s intended. It has copious nature photography, and it’s always a delight to see all the interesting critters under the sea. If you can’t go snorkeling or scuba diving, one of these nature documentaries is the next best thing. But I almost feel badly how little interest the movie kicked up in the personal experience of this guy. I wanted more of the creatures and less of the story of how meaningful Foster found it. He balances between anthropomorphic impressions of the octopus — “old lady in a dress” is one metaphor that sticks out — with oceanography understandings, and sentimental ruminations. I’m glad he had a good time, but I guess I didn’t need to see it. In the words of Keke Palmer, sorry to this man.

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