A ragingly hormonal teen and her accidental “anal fissure” take centerstage in “Wetlands,” a high-energy, unapologetically vulgar, take-me-or-leave-me screen version of Anglo-German author Charlotte Roche’s controversial worldwide bestseller (a sort of YA “Fifty Shades of Grey”). Leaving no bodily orifice — or fluid — unexplored, director David Wnendt and breakout star Carla Juri give full measure to the outre self-exploration of Roche’s literary alter ego, Helen Memel, while capturing the underlying sweetness that helped endear the character to millions of readers. Result is a spiky, smartly packaged commercial enterprise as sure to score with mainstream audiences as it is to irk the cognoscenti. Arriving on a tide of heavy advance publicity in German-speaking Europe (where it opens Aug. 22), the pic seems assured of a stellar local bow, but could see better-than-usual offshore sales for a non-English-language commercial release.
Directed in a hyper-pop musicvideo style that suggests an early John Waters movie as remade by Michael Bay, “Wetlands” announces its intentions early on, with a title sequence set against computer-animated renderings of toilet-seat bacteria. Then Helen’s first-person narration takes over for an extended discussion of vaginal hygiene (one of the pic’s running themes), both her mother’s obsession with it and her own more laissez-faire attitude. In lieu of perfume, she prefers to dab a little “pussy mucus” on her neck to attract the attentions of the opposite sex — a quite literal “eau de toilette.”
Indeed, there’s little that enters, exits or grows upon Helen’s body that doesn’t fascinate the budding young woman, including the bothersome hemorrhoids that lead to you-are-there p.o.v. shots of Helen’s finger applying anti-itch cream to the affected area. If it did nothing else, “Wetlands” could lay claim to crafting a few images we’ve never seen on a movie screen (at least, not since high-school health class).
When the pic isn’t taking us on a fantastic voyage around Helen’s body, it introduces us to her divorced parents (Meret Becker and Axel Milberg), introverted younger brother Toni, and BFF Corinna (Marlen Kruse), all drawn as broad caricatures of the sort one might find on an ABC Family sitcom (of which “Wetlands” is very much an NC-17 version). Then, around the half-hour mark, the film arrives at the inciting incident — an accidental slip of the razor that lands Helen in the ER, her rectum gushing blood like Old Faithful.
At this point, “Wetlands” slows down its frenetic pacing ever so slightly, as Helen drifts in and out of consciousness in her hospital bed, recalling various real and imagined traumas and other formative experiences from her past. Chief among them: the divorce of her parents, whom she imagines she can “parent trap” into a reunion if she prolongs her hospital stay (which, in keeping with the general spirit of things, hinges on Helen’s ability — or lack thereof — to deliver a post-surgical bowel movement).
Pic bogs down a bit during one extended flashback devoted to Helen and Corinna’s surreal trip on a near-lethal cocktail of stolen narcotics. But “Wetlands” gets back on surer footing as Helen tries to seduce a hunky male nurse (appealing newcomer Christoph Letkowski) with tall tales of her sexual predilections, culminating in a literal act of food porn that gives unforgettable new meaning to the expression “a pizza with everything on it.”
Jokes like those make Cameron Diaz’s hair gel from “There’s Something About Mary” seem like a L’Oreal campaign, but underlying it all is a knowing sense of people’s varying levels of fascination and repulsion with the organic processes of the human body. Still, “Wetlands” might have landed with the thud of empty shock value were Helen not such an innately engaging character, or Juri so commanding in the role. For all her effrontery, Helen seems driven by a native intelligence, restless curiosity, and refusal to accept anything about the world just because someone tells her that’s the way it is. And Juri, who was 27 when the film was made but looks considerably younger, catches the vulnerability and longing stirring just beneath Helen’s brash facade. (Physically, the actress resembles the young Melanie Griffith, but with the no-nonsense huff of the teen Jodie Foster.)
Directing his second full-length feature (after 2012’s acclaimed neo-Nazi drama “Combat Girls”), Wnendt shows strong commercial instincts of the sort that should get him noticed by Hollywood. Tech credits are all aces, especially German-Polish cameraman Jakub Bejnarowicz’s candy-colored widescreen lensing.