Winner of the jury’s narrative feature award at Slamdance, “Driftwood” treats a fantastical theme in utterly matter-of-fact, pragmatic terms: A man finds a mermaid and tries to “domesticate” her — an effort that becomes less a love story than one of control and eventual rebellion. This wordless tale, a beguiling feature directing debut for cinematographer Paul Taylor, will be a marginal commercial prospect. But it should attract further favorable notice on the fest circuit and in other showcases for new talent.
When a young woman with short brunette hair (Joslyn Jensen) seemingly stumbles out of the sea — albeit in a demure white clip — she’s taken in by a bald-pated, 40-ish man (Paul C. Kelly) who lives alone nearby. She wakes up in a pink bedroom, curiously wiggling toes as if amazed that flippers are no longer there. Though she’s a quick study, her host has to teach her pretty much everything, from using a fork at the dining table to not peeing at that same location. But when she innocently wanders away from this house in the woods one day, his care becomes more like that of a prison guard than a benefactor — or lover, for that matter.
Speaking of the latter, his presumed romantic intentions grow confusing once he “marries” the mystery lass (using a ring and wedding dress already conveniently in his possession), but then seems ambivalent about consummating the relationship. Instead, he brings home an apparent merman (Michael Fentin) — folks seem to be washing up onshore in bulk now — as both servant and companion to his prior guest. But when these two sea urchins do bond, it’s over their shared sense of mistreatment by an increasingly harsh master.
The enigmatic story does not lack humor (there’s even a dance interlude set to Al Jolson’s “April Showers”), but it’s distinguished primarily by the poker-faced directness with which it approaches a concept that might inherently seem to call for whimsical (or macabre) treatment. That air is heightened by the pic’s lack of any musical scoring; other packaging elements are also effective in their unpretentious simplicity. Performances are aptly naturalistic yet ambiguous.