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I was so charmed by the German comedy Wetlands (2014) initially that I didn’t think I had much to say about it. It has a whimsy and sprightliness that reminded me of Amelie, except that it centers on a sexually and hygienically adventurous teenager instead of a shy woman in her twenties. It’s easy to get caught up in its charms and spend the movie wondering what this weird, adorable girl is going to do next. Early in the movie, the main character, Helen (Carla Juri), announces that her hobbies are having sex and growing avocados. She also undertakes several cringe-inducing experiments on her own body, which we later learn are acts of rebellion against her parents for splitting up. When a freak shaving accident lands her in the hospital, she uses it as leverage to get her parents into the same room together in hopes that they’ll reconcile. But in the course of her hospital stay, which she drags out on purpose, she also remembers a traumatic incident from her past that changes the way she looks at her parents, and she becomes attached to a young (male) nurse named Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
What I love about Wetlands is Helen’s bizarre charm. Carla Juri (who is actually 30) does a wonderful job capturing the way teenage girls can be completely fearless in one facet of their lives and terribly insecure in others. Helen seems like a grown woman when she’s trying to seduce Robin, and five minutes later she’s crying because her mother arrived at the hospital ahead of schedule and missed her father. Her weaknesses and insecurities make her strengths more believable.
Helen’s relationship with her best friend Corinna (played by Marlen Cruse) is also portrayed in a wonderfully believable way. We mostly see Corinna in flashbacks, in which she’s a willing and gleeful participant in Helen’s insane experiments, even when they result in Helen having to dislodge a tampon from Corinna’s nethers using a pair of barbecue tongs. Her gentle personality is a great foil for Helen’s exuberance, and they bond in a way that also struck me as remarkably true to life for teenage girls.
All of this occurred to me while I was watching Wetlands, totally enraptured by its humor and novelty. But elements of the film started to nag at me afterward. It uses a plot device I hate: the repressed memory that gradually resurfaces, usually with the effect of changing the viewers’ perception of the events we’re seeing. In this case, Helen gradually remembers that when she was very young, her mother tried to gas herself and her baby brother in the oven. This memory returns to Helen very slowly, over the course of at least an hour of screen time, and these flashback scenes are shot in a beautifully creepy, horror-adjacent style. The problem is that once the big reveal is over, that plot thread is dropped almost immediately. The buildup is almost too effective: we’re dying to know what horror young Helen witnessed, and the revelation is suitably upsetting. But present-day Helen is largely unperturbed by it. After a quick heart-to-heart with her younger brother, who also claims to remember the incident, that plot thread is abandoned. I suspect it was introduced to add suspense to a story that would otherwise have very little, but it’s a two- hour movie that feels like it should only be 85 minutes, so cutting that thread out would actually make the movie leaner and more cohesive.
The other major problem I have with Wetlands is the ending, in which Helen and Robin almost literally ride off into the sunset together. (They actually drive to his house in the rain, but still.). I found this hugely problematic on several levels. First and most obviously, she’s a teenager and he’s at least in his late twenties. It’s not totally clear how old Helen is supposed to be, but she’s in high school and she lives with her parents, so she can’t be older than seventeen or eighteen. I’m all for sex-positive movies about young women, but it bothered me that their age gap isn’t even addressed in the film. Robin also has a longtime girlfriend who’s a nurse at the same hospital and who is portrayed as a frigid bitch, not to put too fine a point on it. Obviously women like that exist, but it felt like a cheap shot to vilify the girlfriend just because she objects to a teenager stealing her boyfriend out from under her nose. It also feels like a cop-out for Helen’s character to find her resolution in a romantic relationship. She begins the movie as such a force of nature, totally independent and self-assured; and while she never explicitly says she’s not interested in a relationship, it’s clearly not a priority for her. So it undermines her character for her to give up her independent lifestyle so easily.
It’s worth pointing out that Wetlands is based on the 2008 novel of the same name (translated from the German title, Feuchtgebiete) by Charlotte Roche, which goes some distance toward explaining the dissonance between the first two charmingly idiosyncratic acts and the Hollywood cop-out of an ending. Real-life events rarely have tidy conclusions, and I understand the desire to add one. But I wish the director, David Wnendt, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Claus Falkenberg, had given us an ending that felt more consistent with Helen’s personality.
I still give Wetlands a strong recommendation. It’s not a perfect movie and several of the plot elements raised troubling questions that distracted me from Carla Juri’s masterful performance. But the world needs more teen gross-out comedies centered on females, especially ones this likable.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.