‘Kate Can’t Swim’: Film Review | Slamdance 2017
Actor Josh Helman’s first feature as a director debuted in the Slamdance narrative feature competition.
Alongside his substantial acting career (Mad Max: Fury Road, the X-Men franchise), Josh Helman branches out to directing with Kate Can’t Swim, a closely observed relationship drama that foregrounds some distinctly forthright sexual dynamics. Essentially a belated coming-of-age story about best friends separated by conflicting life choices, Helman’s feature may struggle to differentiate itself from a host of low-budget productions, although those similarities also place it sufficiently within the indie-film comfort zone to justify further festival pickups and perhaps VOD play.
Pushing 30, Brooklynite Kate (Celeste Arias) remains awkwardly adrift, despite the support of loving long-term boyfriend Pete (Grayson DeJesus) and a potentially promising career as a writer. Self-doubt and chronic procrastination have sapped much of her creative drive, however, leaving her wondering where to turn next. When her best friend, Em (Jennifer Allcott), returns from a stint pursuing her art in Paris with new Australian boyfriend Nick (Helman), rather than the anticipated French girlfriend, Kate realizes that her own life may hold possibilities that she hasn’t discovered yet, if she could only grasp them. Kate and Em remain as close as ever though, both emotionally intimate and physically affectionate, reassuring Kate that their friendship remains on solid ground.
An invitation from Em and Nick to join them for a weekend at Nick’s rustic upstate cabin offers Kate and Pete an opportunity to shake up their routine and chill out for a few days. The property’s beautiful lakeside scenery, good food, spirited conversation and plenty of booze put everyone in a relaxed mood, but Kate remains troubled by concerns about Nick’s intentions with Em, since she’s always been an avowed lesbian and he’s a sought-after nude fashion photographer with plenty of recent ex-lovers.
Em’s blossoming self-assurance forces Kate to compete with her new male rival for her friend’s attention, but she has years of familiarity with the quirks of Em’s personality that put Nick at a disadvantage. Once Kate begins to push up against emotional boundaries and test her relationships with everyone around her, however, a wholesale reassessment of her future appears imminent, regardless of the consequences.
Helman's and Allcott’s character-focused script and their multiple filmmaking roles exhibit the readily recognizable hallmarks of a DIY low-budget feature that’s similar in outline to many other comparable films. The fluid relationship dynamics on display offer an additional layer of unexpected complication that’s satisfactorily resolved within the fairly standard narrative arc, although definitive conclusions remain elusive.
Arias makes an assured feature debut, fully grasping Kate’s state of arrested development, as well as her increasing confusion and dissatisfaction with the prospects for her future. Allcott’s Em revels in the role of mischievous disrupter, constantly challenging the assumptions of both her best friend and her boyfriend, although the fluidity of her sexual identity is never really addressed. Helman employs Nick’s alpha-male personality to maintain dominance by keeping everyone else off-balance, forcing DeJesus’ Pete in particular to constantly readjust his expectations and behavior around the others.
With a script that appears to be driven primarily by Allcott’s concerns regarding female relationships, it’s somewhat difficult to assess Helman’s screenwriting expertise, but he demonstrates a fine rapport with the cast as he competently juggles acting and directorial duties.
Production companies: Grand Street Films, Rooster Films
Cast: Celeste Arias, Jennifer Allcott, Grayson DeJesus, Josh Helman
Directors: Josh Helman, Evan Jonigkeit
Screenwriters: Jennifer Allcott, Josh Helman
Producers: Jennifer Allcott, Samuel R. Syrop
Executive producers: Evan Jonigkeit, Zosia Mamet
Director of photography: Tommy Agriodimas
Production designer: Layla Calo-Baird
Costume designer: Jennifer Allcott
Editor: Joanna Naugle
Music: Tyler Parkford
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Narrative Features Competition)
Sales: The Gersh Agency
Not rated, 86 minutes