Bobbing up to the surface like the sea-weathered curio its name describes, Paul Taylor’s debut feature is overdue for rediscovery. The nearly silent drama enjoyed an impressive launch at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival, where its oddly seductive and discomfiting fairy tale took the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature. Now it’s back, streaming on Fandor, where it merits both a fresh look and a whole new audience.
Joslyn Jensen (Without, Funny Bunny) plays a mysterious, mute young woman who washes up on an unnamed, geographically obscure beach, where she is scooped up by an equally oblique character, a bald, middle-aged man (Paul C. Kelly) who takes her back to his rustic home. His catch of the day thus begins a rather curious process of behavioral training. The shades of pink in the production design, plus the character’s fresh-off-the-coral naiveté about the landlubbing world trigger some new associations in the wake of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. She is nothing if not a doll and treated as one: something to dress up, to play pretend with, to mold, to screw or lock away at whim. At least until a certain consciousness stirs up, a desire for agency. Her keeper/host/benefactor/kidnapper is nothing if not the Patriarchy. He’s committed to making sure that his new roommate understands not to urinate at the table and learns how to properly fry an egg sunny side up, but his intentions are anything but altruistic.
The awkwardness with which this process develops accrues additional bits of ick and/or charm as the schooling leans into traditional home economics, and some obvious grooming for other domestic services. In scenes that evoke a melancholy longing, it’s revealed that the Man is seeking a replacement for something, or someone, long lost. He pulls a wedding dress out of mothballs and polishes up a ring.
The patient pacing—with scenes unfolding before a locked-down camera, and facial expressions as the only clue to interior thoughts and motivations—heightens the peculiar tone and gives the audience as much mental space to process events as the characters themselves. Turns out, it’s not so easy to turn a flipper-less mermaid into a housewife. When she makes a modest attempt at a getaway, she’s hauled back and chained up.
The minimalist story takes a pivot about halfway through, and—mild spoiler alert—it involves another trip to the beach, where he collects a second wandering soul. This time a male (Michael Fentin), closer in age to the woman. Viewers familiar with the Yorgos Lanthimos drama Dogtooth might pick up on similar vibes here, as new training sessions begin. The dry, deadpan exposition; the estrangement from any sort of contemporary sense of a world beyond the wooded location; the science-fictional airs introduced by both the premise (a beachful of blank-minded humans, seemingly spit up by the waves) and the weird lockdown existence of the principals. There is humor in incidental mishaps and miscues, but also cruelty and punishment, and an irrevocable rising tension felt as things begin going south.
Taylor’s skills as a cinematographer imbue the mostly static scenes with a visual tranquility purposefully disrupted by telltale cutaways (broken eggshells in a trash bin, a bubble of blood on a fingertip, a bikini-clad beach babe smiling on a crusty videotape). There’s no score or needle drops to foreshadow twists or stoke the mood, but all you need to do is some simple math to consider how much longer the increasingly less guileless captives are going to put up with their situation.