Monday 22 February 2021

What Lies Below (USA 2020: Dir Braden R. Duemmler)

Nerdy young Liberty (Ema Horvath) is met from archeology camp by her mother, perky Michelle (Mena Suvari) who is a romance writer fallen on lean times. While Liberty has been away her mother has met a new guy, John (Trey Tucker), who's an aquatic geneticist. John seems a little bit too good to be true, no more so than when, on first meeting, he gives Liberty a Navajo bracelet, having found out that she's interested in the past. Liberty is a mess of teenage hormones and John stirs some strange feelings in her.

John is - and there's a big clue here - studying the dilemma of the low ratio of freshwater to seawater in the world and the increasing level of salinity because of global warming. He's looking at enabling certain freshwater species to survive in a saltwater world. Later Liberty gatecrashes his work; a study of lamprey eels - which are parasitic and can latch on to and adapt to their prey - to which John seems particularly, pardon the pun, attached.

Liberty feels torn between wanting to like the new man in her mother's life (helped by their bond of interest in science and his seemingly genuine interest in the natural world) and remaining suspicious of him. John's presence revives past resentments between mother and daughter, but he seems aware of the difficulties his arrival has brought. But an incident when John and Liberty are out together on a small boat point to John being a little on the odd side; Michelle's announcement of their forthcoming marriage occurs at a point where Liberty's mother becomes weak and bedridden, and it isn't long before John's real nature shows its scaly face.

For a rather formulaic movie What Lies Below plays its hand cleverly, aided by effective performances from Horvath, Suvari and Tucker. First time feature director Duemmler has obviously been watching the right movies, as this has the ring of 1990s creature features and 'stepfather from hell' movies: there's also what I think might be one of the first post President Trump references in a fiction movie, where Liberty refers to an incident where a certain part of her anatomy is 'grabbed'. 

It's perhaps a shame that the budget didn't stretch to some last reel monstrosities (or perhaps it was the filmmakers' attempts to keep the drama human focused) but an unexpectedly gloomy ending and a claustrophobic three hander setup made this a more interesting prospect than maybe I was expecting.

Signature Entertainment presents What Lies Below on Digital Platforms from 22 February.

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