My Inner Child is Very Conflicted: A Review of Lady in the Water

Lady in the Water movie posterI can’t sugarcoat it: this film is terrible. …And yet, I like it. When I went to the theater showing eight years ago, I couldn’t believe how mad everyone was when they left. Sure, it didn’t live up to the trailer, but what movie does anymore?  After re-watching it for the first time since then, I definitely understand why people thought it wasn’t worth their money. It’s offensive, pretentious, and ridiculous. It’s almost bad enough to be funny, but it’s stuck between that line of bad and funnily bad. What did I see in this movie? Believe it or not, this film does do a few things decently. It surprised me by avoiding clichés that I’d expect other scripts to use in a heartbeat. If nothing else, this movie proves there can be a silver lining after the darkest clouds.

Spoilers after the jump!

Lady in the Water starts with a simple animated short about mankind and its relationship with “the people from the water”. As the men from land wanted to expand civilization, they ignored the wise nymphs, who became nothing but a story.

We then meet Mr. Cleveland Heep, the superintendent of the apartment complex The Cove. One night he catches someone swimming in the community pool after dark. He walks over to find it’s a woman named Story who reveals that she is a Narf, or a water nymph. She says she must find a writer and act as a muse, and help him to finish his novel, so he can inspire a great leader one day in the future.

The fake healerCleveland spends most of the film finding people, from this mysterious writer to other tenants meant to assist Story in her mission. Finally the night comes where Story must return home. Several creatures called Scrunts, wolves with grass-like fur, try to stop her. Everyone starts panicking as things don’t seem to go right, and they find out most of these gathered people were wrong for the role they were chosen to play. “The Healer” is revealed to be a different person, as the first one chosen tries to help Story from being poisoned with no success. The group starts to doubt themselves, until Mr. Heeps tries to heal Story and is proven to have been The Healer all along. The rest of the “false” chosen ones are replaced with the correct people, and they successfully get Story home to become the Queen of the Narfs.

I can’t even make up how roundabout the plot is. This movie was bashed by critics for being pointless and self-indulgent, and I believe them. It’s hard to ignore the fact Shyamalan played the role of the revolutionary writer. Or that there’s a character who’s a movie critic, who is accused of almost killing people by guessing the wrong chosen ones, then being killed by a Scrunt while monologuing. One of the characters from the movie asks what “kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being”. This isn’t even the worst part.

Many were disappointed when the film became more of a fairy tale than a horror movie, and when I re-watched the movie, I honestly thought it should have been marked as a comedy. Shyamalan uses a lot of tropes, to the point I thought I was watching the parody A Scary Movie. From the quirky old couple to the hippie cat lady, he has quite the cast of easily recognizable clichés. The insulting part is that he uses racial stereotypes as well. It’s sad because the cast in this movie is diverse, but the Latino and Asian families are played for laughs.

Cleveland hitting a bug?The Perez de la Torres are a family of five daughters and their father. In the beginning they are shown cowering from some sort of creature/bug that Cleveland has to kill because they’re too scared. They scream as the father translates that his daughters are saying “it is a being from the depths of hell”. The father is very thankful when it’s dead, blessing Cleveland and thanking him “for saving their lives.” Later in the movie the girls are at the pool and count down in Spanish as they cannonball in. Honestly, is any of this necessary? Yes, a Latino family would speak Spanish, but why wouldn’t they speak English too? Shouldn’t they have a more dignified introduction, especially as the daughters become chosen ones to help Story?

Seriously? Is this supposed to be clever camera usage?

Seriously? Is this supposed to be clever camera usage?

Similarly, I couldn’t stand how the Korean family was treated. Young-Soon Choi and her mother are also tenants at The Cove. Young-Soon is a college student who gets books for Mr. Heep to read in his spare time, and she also helps Cleveland learn about the Narfs and their history throughout the film. For all the help Young-Soon gives, we don’t even get to see her face when we first meet her. Instead we get a shot of her butt and her bare back. When Mr. Heep needs to learn more about the fairy tale, we meet Mrs. Choi, who also needs her words translated by a family member. These scenes are as awkward as they can possibly be, with the two yelling in Korean as we watch Cleveland holding his shoes at the doorway. I was genuinely interested in hearing the tale, but these moments made it almost impossible to keep watching. Is it supposed to be funny that this woman is creeped out? The superintendent comes over to hear her tell Korean fairy tales and this is meant to be normal? Personally I’d react the same way, I’d think he was pulling a prank or had an ulterior motive. The Indian and Black families are treated normally and don’t have heavy accents, why are these two families singled out as weird?

He's annoyed rather than overjoyed, it's a start.

He’s annoyed rather than overjoyed, it’s a start.

For all these faults, there are two things that make the movie tolerable. The first being how much respect Story gets for just being dressed in a work shirt. At no point does someone give her underwear, pants or… anything else, but no one tries to molest her either. Cleveland genuinely wants to help her, and sees her as a lost child rather than a strange nymph who keeps getting naked and hiding in his shower. It was refreshing to know she wasn’t becoming a romantic interest for anyone.

The second reason I enjoy the movie is the way the film portrays how people would react to a fairy tale happening in real life. Story and the Scrunts weren’t from another realm and they weren’t aliens; they were a part of the modern world. There weren’t any special weapons, instead, tenants were using brooms and shovels to defend themselves. No one inexplicably owned guns. It presented magic as a force that has always existed. The fairy tales were real stories that lost their meaning, and the people at The Cove had a hand in making them true again. It was touching when characters would say how much they wanted the stories to be true, though no real proof was ever presented to make people believe that they had been true. I can’t deny that I’d probably help a nymph who popped out of a nearby pool too, even if it was just a delirious woman. I enjoyed seeing such a variety of people trying to help someone out of the kindness of their hearts.

Lady in the Water isn’t the best movie, but I think it’s worth at least one watch. So long as you don’t try to make sense of… well, anything, and watch it with childlike innocence, you might find yourself enjoying it. Just know that your brain might implode.


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1 thought on “My Inner Child is Very Conflicted: A Review of Lady in the Water

  1. I echo everything you’ve said here. So much is wrong with The Lady in the Water and yet, there is something that I found charming about this story. I don’t think it ever should’ve been a film. Shyamalan originally told it as a bedtime story for his daughters. It would’ve made a better children’s book than a movie.

    As to people hating it – well, everyone expects horror from Shyamalan. If he doesn’t deliver, they hate him for it. I knew the background of the story, so I went into the theater with that context in mind.

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