"The Waterdance" is the movie that nobody will want to see that everybody should see -- not because "it's good for you," but simply because it's good.
It was the movie I didn't want to see, not for a minute: young bodies broken on the rack of fate at its most cruelly whimsical, wheelchairs, strong young men consigned to them forever, pain, bitterness, bleakness, not exactly your typical laffriot.
But the central astonishment of "The Waterdance" is that it is a laffriot.
Neal Jimenez, who wrote and co-directed, has himself gone through such an ordeal and emerged with spirits and talent, if not body, intact. But the movie is far from one of those yes-I-can! orchestrations of positive thinking, glib epiphanies of the mind-over-matter school of human improvement through human devastation.
It turns out that it makes no difference how hard your mind works, it can't beat the matter of your body: there's no escape from the chair. It's it and that's that; and understanding that is the first step toward salvation and the second step is love -- provisional, crabbed, qualified, reluctant, but nevertheless genuine -- toward the other boyz 'n the ward.
Jimenez's analogue is played by Eric Stoltz, heretofore a wan clone of the Michael J. Fox, whom he resembles so much (indeed, Stoltz originally had the "Back to the Future" role, but flubbed so bad he got the ax, opening the gates for Fox). Stoltz is terrific: he plays Joel Garcia, a young novelist of the Jay McInerney school whose career is in the first flush of success and whose sex life, with a married woman, is a constant source of satisfaction. But when we first meet him, he's just coming out of anesthesia to discover his new body, only half of which will ever work again.
Joel is surprisingly sanguine about this. No rage, no fury, no collapse through the membrane of self-pity. Clearly his humor is his defense mechanism, and the ironic rejoinders with which he thrusts and parries at his new condition are somewhat like Cyrano's japes of wit and blade to protect his sensitivity to his own handicap, that mother of all schnoz. Joel, like Cyrano, keeps the world at bay, even when the world is represented by Anna (Helen Hunt) and even when he yearns desperately for it and her.
But Joel's immediate problem, besides his paralysis, is that he finds himself not among other ironic intellectuals used to taking the long view, but the hoi polloi. Disabling accidents are no respecter of class or racial lines, and the rehab ward is a polyglot of multicultural Los Angeles: there's Bloss, a trashy biker seething with resentment and hostility; and delusional Raymond, black man who claims to be one of the world's great lovers but now only wants to be the father of his daughter and the husband of his wife (a losing proposition).
Both William Forsythe and Wesley Snipes excel in these roles, and Jimenez's screenplay labors honestly to keep from sentimentalizing them. Both men are in some sense rancid: users, pillagers, me-firsters, brought low almost in an act of biblical retribution. And, not to put too fine a line on it, they really hate each other, for the sadly obvious reasons. Yet the sweetest implication of "The Waterdance" is derived from watching these two social enemies learn that the chair makes them brothers where the skin has not. And it chronicles a wonderful process: how if people simply listen to each other and chat a little with each other, all the barriers can come down.
That drama is played out on more intimate level in Joel's relation with Anna. Symbolically, I suppose, she's the life he loved that he must learn to say farewell to. This is his hardest battle, and the movie derives a surprising erotic charge from the relationship. Anna is beautiful, and sexually, if not quite spiritually, committed to Joel. One day she makes love to him in the ward, behind curtains; she is remonstrated for this act of passion.
Soon enough they are in a motel (he has driving privileges in a van). Yet the sex, a new frontier of sensation and technique, can't liberate Joel; it only hurts him and forces him to confront his new circumstances, to "feel" rather than analyze what is going on.
In the end, "The Waterdance" isn't a generic testament to the human spirit so much as a small-scale examination of a private accommodation. It offers no grand notes of triumphs; it's not into making you feel good. What it does so magnificently is take a victim-class -- the disabled -- and put human faces on them. It teaches the most elemental and humane of lessons: just because he has to sit in a chair all day, he's still every inch a man.
Starring Eric Stoltz and Wesley Snipes.
Directed by Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg.
Released by Goldwyn.