The Pool (Director: Chris Smith): Documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) makes his return to narrative storytelling with this modest film set in Goa, an area of India known for its beach resorts. Venkatesh is a young “room boy” working for a hotel who spies a seemingly vacant holiday house with a shimmering swimming pool. He becomes obsessed with finding out who lives in the house and is determined to work his way into their lives so he can swim in the pool. His life is hard; he and his young friend Jhangir work several jobs, including a gig where they re-sell plastic bags at the market to make some extra cash. They’ve come here from their village to make a living, and neither can read or write, having long given up hope of ever attending school. It’s touching to see their friendship, considering that Venkatesh is 18 and Jhangir only 10. The younger boy is more like a little brother, although he’s easily as streetwise as Venkatesh.
One day Venkatesh notices a man sitting in a chair by the pool, and over the next few days, from his vantage point in a nearby tree, he realizes there’s also a beautiful young woman living there. When he sees the man tending his garden and scolding the girl for not helping him, he springs into action. Although he can’t read, he buys a book on gardening and has a co-worker at the hotel read it to him. With his new-found knowledge of plants, he follows the man to a local garden centre and offers his help bringing supplies back to his home. Although the man doesn’t talk much, Venkatesh gradually insinuates himself into steady work in the garden of the house. He’s intrigued by the fact that no one ever seems to go into the pool, and by the tension between the man and (as it turns out) his daughter.
He and Jhangir also follow the daughter, Ayesha, as she takes a daily walk to the park to read her book, and soon they are bringing her lunch and inviting her on adventures. Although she seems lazy and spoiled when we first meet her, we soon realize that Ayesha is just bored, and is also carrying the scorn of her father for some unexplained misdeed.
Soon Venkatesh has charmed both father and daughter and the mystery of the pool is revealed, leading to an incredibly moving and surprising conclusion.
Smith’s documentary background serves him well. Nothing feels staged here, and he coaxes incredibly natural performances from his mostly nonprofessional cast (who get to use their real names). Scenes are generally short and communicate just enough information to keep the story moving forward. Though the camerawork is a bit shaky, it added a sense of reality to the film, as if we were almost spying on the action. Incredibly, though the film was shot in Hindi, in addition to it not being understood by the director, it wasn’t the first language of the two main child actors. Nor could they speak English, or read. So the challenges facing the production seemed incredibly tough, though I think anyone would agree that the end result was worth it.
I haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire yet, but I’m certain that this small film has more heart and more reality than the Oscar-winner. And though in a perfect world the success of Danny Boyle’s film would benefit The Pool, I worry that this gem of a story will be overlooked. Don’t let it happen.
The Pool opened on Friday April 3rd at the Cumberland theatre in Toronto.