Ophelia Learns to Swim (2000) / Comedy-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language
Running time: 88 min.
Cast: Julia Lee, Lauren Birkell, Camille Langfield, Jennifer Massey, Hilary Shepard, Dian Kobayashi, Meishach Moore, LaVonne Rae Andrews, Dave Fennoy
Director: Jurgen Vsych
Screenplay: Jurgen Vsych
Review published June 24, 2007
Writer-director Jurgen Vsych's debut feature film, Ophelia Learns to Swim, is a feminist superheroine caper that has plenty of small bits that might make you smile, provided you can take the very low budget treatment, but as whole, lacks the focus to tie all of these moments together to drive any sort of momentum. It's certainly done with intelligence, and a good deal of humor, and yet, even if it has a story to tell, it's just too disjointed and scattershot an experience to recommend to anyone who isn't a devotee of feminist theory and women's issues, to which much of the humor plays off of. It also helps if you like obscure independent films that at least try to be different, mostly because its filmmaker is of a different breed than the norm.
Julia Lee (Asylum of the Damned, "Angel") stars as Ophelia, a mousy, superficial Southern California girl living with her grouchy father and bullying brother, who one day becomes a witch's apprentice, catering to the every need of The Broom Witch (Birkell, The Woods), then later joins a league of progressive superheroines out for justice for women's rights to be independent, free-thinkers. Countering their organization, led by the maniacal Virginia Svelte (Shepard, Turbo), is the villainous league of women who have sold out who they are to get ahead.
Vsych's film is very culture literate, featuring allusions to pop culture like Titanic, literary figures like Virginia Woolf, Shakespearean icons, old flicks like The Wizard of Oz, and commercials for feminine products. The tie-in of the social issues is certainly a strength, which will no doubt give this little indie a certain cult appeal, but it's really not the content of Ophelia Learns to Swim that sinks it from being more appealing, it's the presentation.
Vsych has some talent as a director, and the cast is certainly capable of delivering, it's just in the conception and plotting phase where Ophelia seems to fall far short. Vsych certainly is inventive enough to think that she could deliver a winning comedy, as the humor isn't bad at all, it's just that the film itself feels more like a collection of jumbled pieces of movie that aren't held together by an overriding story. In the end, it's really about one woman who finds herself, not retreating back into her superficial existence, and not willing to drown from misery as some of her feminist heroes have tried to do in the past. The topic of the corporate world trying to drown out the power of the progressive movement is also worthy fodder for a smart satire, and yet, the characterizations are too broad to really feel the impact of the message underneath. As erudite as the themes may be, they aren't exactly driven home with assuredness.
Perhaps Vsyche's background in making short films is the reason why Ophelia Learns to Swim works more when taken in small doses than it does as a full-length feature. Regardless, it's obvious that Vsyche is a very talented filmmaker who probably would have benefited with working with a seasoned screenwriter to take on this very ambitious first feature. Funny for small spells, but too unfocused to come away feeling it was nearly as life-altering as Vsych may have intended.
©2007 Vince Leo