Los Angeles gets a serious case of the jitters in writer-director Ben Rekhi’s “Waterborne.” Pic plausibly presents a scenario in which the city’s water supply has been poisoned, then observes characters reacting to the crisis — within a somewhat limited, TV-influenced framework. Runner-up best pic prize at South by Southwest as well as earning Method Fest nods for ensemble and aud best pic set the table for more fest heat and limited theatrical and cable exposure.
“Waterborne” adapts Irwin Allen disaster movie verities to the intimate and character-based forms of an indie film. Three sets of relationships are quickly set in motion: Hard-working brother Zach (Christopher Masterson) clashes with slacker, drug-dealing sibling Bodi (Jake Muxworthy); National Guard commander Ritter (Jon Gries) juggles his complex life with wife Jasmine (Lindsay Price) and sick child; and Vikram (Ajay Naidu) a Westernized Sikh student dates white Jewish g.f. Lillian (Magiena Tovah) under the gaze of his tradition-minded mother Heera (vet Indian star Shabana Azmi).
Out of nowhere, media reports blitz the airwaves about a suspected terrorist attack on the water supply, leaving a few dead and Los Angeles in its traditional movie role as Disaster City. Rekhi’s predilections for close-ups, jumping around from group to group and cliffhanger plot-turns suggest the imprint of the TV show “24.”
A life without water brings out the worst in Bodi, whose string of bad behavior unfortunately moves the film in the unsuitable direction of focusing on one hopped-up guy when the screws come loose.
Ritter’s storyline contends with various moral quandaries, with the prospect of Guard soldiers gunning down civilians during a domestic crisis being just one of the dark possibilities pic effectively ponders.
Most tube-like is Vikram’s difficult family life, showing perhaps too patly that Heera can actually learn to trust those outside her circle. This tendency to neatly arrange conflicts gives the pic a slightly artificial veneer, despite a grounding in contempo reality.
In a seeming nod to Roland Emmerich, Rekhi’s casting displays a taste for plopping comic actors into serious disaster-pic roles, with both Naidu (“Office Space”) and Masterson (“Malcolm in the Middle”) turning uncharacteristically and convincingly grim. Muxworthy plays all the notes of the film’s showiest if most problematic role, and Gries creates a felt model of the citizen soldier.
Pic’s stress on human relations nicely skirts the tech difficulties of suggesting region-wide crisis, and hi-def lensing by Ben Kutchins conveys a sun-bleached urban mess, but is marred by far too many close-ups.