Aquarians

A winter-time drama about a seminary student returning to his hometown and compelled to reconnect with his estranged brother.

Low-key dramas don’t tend to fare well at the Hollywood box-office. Unless they have a star attached, therein making them eligible for major awards – see Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea or Ethan Hawke in the recent First Reformed – subtle indie films about, well, life, aren’t generally considered a hot commodity. Michael M. McGuire’s debut feature, the soulful Aquarians (not to be confused with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, a superior drama that managed to pave a path to Cannes), happens to be one of those projects that slipped under the radar. After all, how do you market a film about a family tragedy, reconciliation, faith, and sibling bonding? Who would want to see that, when Captain Marvel is about to unleash all hell in cinemas worldwide?

“…the naughty seminary student gets pulled over for driving without a license, curses, drinks, smokes weed, masturbates…”

I myself let out a loud yawn and rolled my eyes, as granola music washed over bleak imagery at the start of Aquarians. I guess I’m also getting spoiled by films targeted at the ADD-addled demographic, where shots last two seconds and something eye-catching pops up every four seconds in fear of losing viewers’ undivided attention. But then I let myself surrender to the film’s toned-down pace, its grim and glacial Wisconsin mood – and its themes began to emerge, along with small character nuances more memorable than most Wakanda shots in Black Panther.

The story revolves around two siblings with Biblical names: the buttoned-up do-gooder Daniel (Chandler Massey), who comes back to his hometown as a deacon in his family’s church, and rebel Jacob (Shane Coffey), who lives off the grid in the frosty wilderness. Vastly different personalities, they clash at first – yet past tragedy haunts the brothers, ultimately bonding them. Danny succumbs to Jake’s influence; the naughty seminary student gets pulled over for driving without a license, curses, drinks, smokes weed, masturbates, and makes out with girls at parties – all “ungodly” behavior. Jake, in the meantime, faces his own demons, as the frozen cocoon around him begins to melt and reality starts to seep in. By reconnecting, they may or may not learn how to move on.

“…deserves credit for patiently letting the themes surface, the characters’ traits emerge…”

It’s not exactly a novel story, nor is there anything groundbreaking or particularly memorable here: just a good, old-fashioned yarn about forgiveness and the meaning of faith, albeit with two charming leads and a sustained atmosphere of melancholy. Shane Coffey, whose Jake describes priesthood as “a bunch of missionaries and pedophiles,” gives an animated, acerbic performance – much-needed to counter-balance the film’s glacial pace and somber thematic elements. McGuire, who co-produced, wrote and directed Aquarians, deserves credit for patiently letting the themes surface, the characters’ traits emerge – and for scaling back and not biting off more than he could chew. When the two siblings play guitars at a party, you feel both their joy and their sorrow. Simplicity’s key.

So, to answer the question I posed at the end of the first paragraph: I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a place left for films like Aquarians in the contemporary cinematic market. Like an endangered species, with no stars or hot director to back them up, they are quickly becoming extinct. It may not be perfectly executed, or original in its approach, or particularly memorable, but McGuire’s poignant film possesses an arguably more important trait: it’s totally honest, wearing its heart on its thick parka sleeve.

Aquarians (2018) Written and Directed by Michael M. McGuire. Starring Chandler Massey, Shane Coffey, Tracey Fairaway, Richard Riehle.

7 out of 10

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