Wetlands arrives in US theaters following its North American debut last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it quickly became notorious for its envelope-pushing, boundary-annihilating “most WTF, NSFW” grossness. as its poster advertises. True to the hype, Wetlands opens with its teenage heroine Helen (Carla Juri) skateboarding barefoot down the street, discussing her hemorrhoid problem before wading barefoot into a partially flooded public restroom and explaining her complete disinterest in matters of vaginal hygiene. In spite of this apparent daring, however, the film offers more talk and implication than anything the audience sees in great detail. After Helen suffers an unfortunate shaving accident that leaves her hospitalized with a severe anal fissure, the initial scene’s shock value fades and Wetlands seems about to settle into a sweet if off-kilter love story.
But it’s this assumption on our part that allows the movie to continue to shock… and awe, in its way. The opening transgressions are not just attention-grabbers. Gross things keep happening in Wetlands. Some of the most graphic and/or stomach-churning material arrives in its second half. Think of a substance you might find unpleasant, and you can probably find it in this movie.
Yet Wetlands does manage to become a sweet, if off-kilter, love story too. This takes the shape of Helen’s rambunctious first 17 years or so, which makes the film a coming-of-age movie set free from familiar trappings. From the home base of a hospital room, whose sterility provides stark contrast to the intentional messiness of her life, Helen hopscotches around anecdotes. She remembers her relationships with her mother (Meret Becker) and father (Axel Milberg), who divorced when she was a child; the day she met her best friend and “blood sister” Corinna (Marlen Kruse); a teenage drug binge; and her experiments with sexuality. Back in the hospital, she flirts, aggressively and sometimes brattily, with her nurse, Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
Wetlands takes a tapestry approach to this material, with some of its squares more detailed than others. Helen’s relationship with Corinna is underdeveloped, and the movie never explains why Corinna becomes such an enthusiastic partner to Helen, willing to go to the same extremes. Helen’s own psychology, meanwhile, sometimes feels a little too easily attributed to her relationship with her mother: the daughter rebels against her mother’s OCD-level cleanliness, her insistence that Helen scrub herself and everything around her clean, even as a child. Even her budding relationship with Robin lacks the give and take of a truly memorable romance.
But Helen herself is a wonderful creation, played with a winning insouciance by Juri, who resembles a halfway point between Greta Gerwig and a young Molly Ringwald. Wetlands doesn’t have much to do with punk rock culture (though it does make use of some clever music cues, punk and not, English and not), but there’s something undeniably punk in Juri’s performance, something tough, charismatic, self-aware, and often hilarious. Juri is a bit older than her character, but she makes a convincing teenager because she embodies a restless, searching intelligence.
Though Juri is terrific, sometimes to the point of dominating the other, less fleshed-out performances, Wetlands isn’t a one-woman show. Director David Wnendt extends Helen’s point of view into the style of the film. The movie’s bright colors, extreme close-ups, wild POV shots, and drug-hit cuts recall music videos and their influences on movies like Run Lola Run or early Danny Boyle. Wetlands’ stylish delivery of its grossest moments gives the jolts, and Helen, greater dimension, so these moments are as much about their own audacity and point of view as the off-putting content. Helen and the movie are looking for a reaction—from parents, from Robin, from the audience—but their aggressions have an honest, even exhilarating quality that transcends mere acting out. Wetlands is self-consciously explicit and will be hard to watch for some. But it never feels less than sincere.