Given the surfeit of superhero movies, it comes as a very pleasant surprise to see a low-budget indie taking an unassuming guy with special powers and playing it with a minimum of razzmatazz. In his debut feature, “Vincent,” director-performer Thomas Salvador completely upends the genre, crafting a film as self-effacing as its pro tag (played by the helmer himself), in which a man gains inhuman strength when he comes in contact with water. Impressive shots of his dolphin-like swimming represent basically the sole nod to f/x, since otherwise this understated sleeper focuses more on concepts of individuality and persecution. Fest buzz could help “Vincent” dip into specialized art house waters.
Of course reluctant superheroes are a mainstay of the genre, where nerdy John Does have greatness thrust upon them as they battle evil and save the globe. Vincent fits the mold only in that he’s a quiet, average fellow who just happens to assume the strength of Superman when doused with H2O. Otherwise, he’s not out to save humanity; nor does he have a wicked nemesis with powers equal to his own — he just wants to be left alone. Yet the moment an authority figure witnesses his abilities, he becomes a dangerous character in need of subduing.
Vincent does his best to keep under the radar, taking odd jobs when necessary as long as they’re near bodies of water: There’s a marvelous early scene in which Vincent’s impatience for that contact is so acute that he furiously cycles through a forest until plunging, bike and all, into the river below. One day he encounters Lucie (Vimala Pons) and her friend (Nina Meurisse) hiking in the woods; later they meet by chance, and the ultra-shy Vincent is slowly brought out of his shell by Lucie’s ebullience.
Disarmed by her openness, Vincent lets her in on his secret. She’s amazed, yet in keeping with the film’s surface calm, she’s not suddenly imagining a Lois Lane existence: She likes the guy, no matter his powers. A fight at the construction site he’s working on reveals his water-based strength when he tosses a cement mixer onto the car of a belligerent co-worker who’s abusing a colleague. Cops give chase, and it becomes a race for Vincent to find aquatic areas so he can escape — but for how long?
For the police, Vincent’s infraction is minor compared with his disturbing abilities, making the film a metaphor about difference rather than a superhero pic. While even that well-worn genre generally carries a similar message about not fearing what makes us distinctive, big-budget tentpoles tend to bury the characters’ humanity under Everests of bombast, losing sight of why such themes matter. Instead, “Vincent” makes it the central motif: Here’s a guy who’s not out to prove anything yet, by virtue of his gifts, becomes a target of fear.
The absence of background is slightly problematic — not that a Krypton origin tale is needed, but some sense of when Vincent discovered his powers (apparently recently) would be helpful. Salvador carefully constructs his narrative along entirely logical lines in unspectacular albeit pleasant locations, furthering the sense of “averageness” and making a film of adult sensibility out of what’s normally a story for adolescent boys. He also minimizes the testosterone injections usually associated with such movies, so the only special effects, well integrated and edited, come from shots of him plunging in and out of a pool, and swimming with orca-like speed.
Salvador’s unassertive presence as an actor suits the almost dull nature of the character, and there’s very little dialogue to counter the notion of Vincent as an inarticulate, placid average Joe. Alexis Kavyrchine’s low-key lensing makes its mark in sylvan scenes of quiet beauty.