DANCES WITH FILM 2023 REVIEW! Writer-director G.B. Hajim’s sophomore feature film is the fantasy-drama Mermaid’s Lament. Dayva Summer Escobar stars as Oee, a mermaid who gets trapped on land. She trembles as she traverses the city near her ocean, not understanding the land-dwellers’ way. But she marvels at the little things humans don’t think twice about, such as umbrellas. Unable to speak, Oee has difficulty conveying what happened to her.
Enter Dr. Nell (Justina Mattos), who initially believes Oee to be living on the streets and needing help. The well-meaning lady with a tragic past then concludes that Oee is delusional, only thinking she’s a mermaid. As a therapist, Nell sees it as her duty to dispel her ward of this notion and bring her back to reality. As Nell shows Oee more about human ways, the two grow closer. But startling reactions and intense dreams may lead Nell to believe Oee is what she claims to be.
There have been romances, horror, comedies, coming-of-age tales, and adventure flicks all centering on or prominently featuring mermaids. Mermaid’s Lament could well be the first existential drama about these fantastical undersea beings. The mermaids are only shown intermittently throughout, and their design is okay. The seams of the tails are sometimes noticeable and look like what one would see in the live performances of a “mermaid” held at aquariums. But those shows are incredible feats of athleticism, gracefulness, and acting ability. The same can be said here. So while the costumes are serviceable but noticeably costumes, there’s a lot to appreciate about the characters and their swimming. Plus, going with the film’s themes, an argument could be made that the mermaids not looking 100% believable is intentional. If that is the case, it makes it harder for audiences to know whether or not Oee is a mermaid.
Speaking of, Escobar is a revelation in her first lead role in a full-length film. The way she opens and closes the umbrella, smiling every time water flings off it, is so innocent and sweet. Escobar has big Summer Glau energy here. How she combines graceful movements, expressive facial reactions, and (perhaps) a slight sense of crazy brings to mind River Tam in the best possible way.
“…concludes that Oee is delusional, only thinking she’s a mermaid.”
Mattos is good, as the most serious-minded of the two leads. While some of her lines are said a little too quickly, she shares strong chemistry with Escobar, making their friendship believable. When the actor threatens to bash a group of men’s heads in, it is intense.
Mermaid’s Lament also has a strong central message that will resonate with all watching. Hajim allows a meditation-like vibe to enter in the opening. Shots of Oee swimming, intercut with Nell doing yoga (?), almost all wordlessly, while the marvelous score takes front and center, sets the tone early on. This lets the lofty ideas of who a person is, what makes them happy, and working through trauma be felt without needless exposition. Admittedly, it might drive viewers more attuned to a traditional narrative structure crazy, but that is their loss.
On the negative side of things, Nell’s overprotection of her mom’s dress needs more explanation. It is central to her actions at times, but how close was she to her mom? How old was her mom when she died? Flashbacks, or possibly they are nightmares, look expressionistic and give audiences a good idea of Nell’s feelings but don’t explain why she has these emotions.
Mermaid’s Lament is an engaging drama about who people are and what they need from life. Its budgetary limitations are sometimes noticeable but don’t distract too much from the overall story or its themes. More importantly, the two leads are quite good. Mattos is likable, and her character’s need to help people is never questioned. Escobar should come out of this fielding offers left and right, as she has the “it” factor.
Mermaid’s Lament screened at the 2023 Dances With Film Festival.
"…Escobar has big Summer Glau energy..."