In our globalized economy, it only seems natural that Chris Smith, director of working-class portraits "American Job" and "American Movie," would turn his attentions to India. In his assured, neorealist feature "The Pool," Smith tells the simple story of Venkatesh, an 18-year-old boy trying to make a living in the western coastal area of Goa. Small, by today's Sundance standards, but immensely resonant in its well-crafted storytelling, "The Pool" is an admirable continuation of Smith's interests in the social conditions that define us, and the desire to transcend them.
Like the protagonist of "American Job," but more entrepreneurial, Venkatesh works in a hotel, cleaning the floors, making the beds, delivering room service, and to make extra money, he also sells plastic bags on the street with his younger friend Jhangir. (The boys' plastic-bag enterprise is shut down when the government demands a switch to paper.)
But Venkatesh has bigger plans. Not far from his work, he repeatedly climbs atop a tree and gazes enviously across the way at a wealthy home and the crystalline pool that always remains undisturbed. Venkatesh longs to take a dip and see how the other lives, but as Jhangir says, "The closest you'll get to that pool is to clean it."
The resourceful Venkatesh ingratiates himself to the house's owner ("Salaam Bombay"'s Nana Patekar) and is hired to work in its gardens. As a paternal relationship gradually forms, Venkatesh also develops a rapport with the rich-man's daughter, Ayesha, a cynical, cosmopolitan-type whose lounging around with her face in a book is an apt counterpoint to Venkatesh's working. Eventually, father and daughter reveal a tragic secret that will come to encompass Venkatesh's own destiny.
One of the wonderful things about "The Pool" is how seemingly effortless it all is. If Smith has learned a thing or two from watching the movies of Satyajit Ray, it shows in his patience with the material and a resolve to avoid narrative cliche and never sentimentalize his characters, who are mostly photographed in a long and medium shots. Such restraint with the camera reflects a maturity and subtlety that is rare in Sundance's dramatic competition films. Outside of the context of Park City's rapid pace, the naturalistic rhythms of "The Pool" might be described as deliberate and accomplished rather than "slow," as some sleepy viewers called it (unfortunately, the film's press and industry screening took place at 10pm). Then again, outside of Sundance, would the film's uniqueness glow as brightly?
Do we need Chris Smith to make a Hindi-language coming-of-age drama when there are probably plenty of Indian filmmakers who should be able to do the same? The question isn't entirely fair. Sensitive to the culture, not only of India, but to those people who must work menial jobs to survive and dream of something bigger, Smith has crafted a quietly beautiful movie that honors both. Though I can't help but wonder how Indian and Indian American audiences will respond to the film. Either way, "The Pool" is a gentle rebuke against materialism and a heartfelt study of class (and racial) difference (Venkatesh is "black," Ayesha is "white"). It also culminates with a perfect closing shot -- the kind of intelligent, ambiguous and contemplative ending that one wishes all filmmakers would have the confidence to employ.
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