The 18-year-old beanpole at the center of The Pool usually doesn’t mind breaking the rules. Venkatesh, a “room boy” at a hotel in the Indian state of Goa, shows up late and jokes around once he gets there. He teases a co-worker who scoffs at his idea to turn on the TV while they’re tidying a room: “Are you a human being or an egg?” Venkatesh asks after he’s momentarily struck speechless by the guy’s knee-jerk reference to policy. But when Venkatesh spies a pristine pool in a wealthy part of his Panjim neighborhood, he rejects the option of sneaking in to take a dip like someone suggests. “I’m going in freely,” he says.
To Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), the pool and its boundaries represent something larger than the petty workaday games he must play in order to survive and, both as object and metaphor, must be respected. The pool represents a grander life, one in which people are educated, read for leisure—Venkatesh can’t read at all—and can cool their skin and calm their nerves at their whim in a private backyard paradise. “The closest you’re going to get to that pool is cleaning it,” Venkatesh’s younger but astute friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah) tells him, bursting his daydream after both climb down from their perch in a voyeurism-friendly tree. But Venkatesh doesn’t buy it—or, at least, isn’t above thinking that it’d be fair to trade labor for access.
Improving one’s lot is the main message of this film by documentary filmmaker Chris Smith, which he adapted with Randy Russell from Russell’s short story (which was set in Iowa). The rewards of generosity, friendship, and balancing hard work with kicking back are lesser but still clear. When Venkatesh isn’t at the hotel, he spends his time peddling plastic bags to overzealous shoppers or hanging out with the 11-year-old Jhangir, who also works instead of going to school despite aspirations of becoming a civil engineer. But after they discover the pool, Venkatesh sets out to meet its owners: Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), a pretty, modern young woman who mostly sulks around buried in a book, and her father (Nana Patekar), who tends to the garden. Neither of them use the pool.
Venkatesh goes from spying to following them both, striking up conversations with Ayesha when he not-so-casually happens by her favorite place in the park; shadowing her father at a garden center, he eventually offers to help him out. Both begin a tentative relationship with Venkatesh, with the chatty boy doing most of the talking. Venkatesh and Jhangir show Ayesha the sights—Smith, who also serves as cinematographer, shoots a crisp and sunny Panjim—but more important is the time the teenager spends with his new boss. “I wonder what I could have been,” Venkatesh says when he talks about having never gone to school. Venkatesh’s obvious intelligence, solid work ethic, and otherwise unfortunate circumstances (he became the breadwinner for his family in Karnataka after his father died) prompts the wealthy businessman to open up, teaching him some life lessons and eventually making him a generous offer to escape his lot.
The Pool is as quietly pleasant as its namesake. Smith keeps music to a minimum, focusing instead on his appealing, realistic characters and subtle storytelling that wisely downgrades a tragic but integral plot detail into a passing mention. Whereas Patekar is a Bollywood star—his performance as a man of integrity and wisdom but with few words is assured and nearly regal—Chavan and Badshah are nonprofessionals with a natural ease in front of the camera. Chavan’s Venkatesh espouses a larger, more genial view of the world than Badshah’s prone-to-bitterness Jhangir. (“No point in being pissed,” Venkatesh tells him at one point. “It’s bad for your health.”) But soon the pool owner’s kindness is paid forward. And the pool itself? A mere destination whose rewards aren’t nearly as tantalizing as Venkatesh’s journey.
Mister Foe Directed by David Mackenzie
Venkatesh’s inclinations to spy and stalk appear instinctively childlike compared to the similar habits of Hallam Foe, the thoroughly unlikable protagonist of David Mackenzie’s Glasgow- and Edinburgh-set Mister Foe. We’re supposed to believe that Hallam’s obsessive peeping into people’s homes and most private moments is just as involuntary—and hence forgivable. The 17-year-old’s mother, after all, allegedly committed suicide a few years back, though he suspects her death was the work of Dad’s chilly new wife. His sister and only ally has left for school. What’s a depressed boy to do but slather on war paint, break into apartments, and watch family and friends have sex?
Hallam (Jamie Bell) chooses to live in a treehouse on his family’s significant estate, interacting with his father (Ciarán Hinds) and stepmother, Verity (Claire Forlani, somehow a better actress when affecting an accent), only when necessary and falling asleep next to a giant wall hanging of his mother’s face. After an absurd and heated (in more than one sense of the word) confrontation with Verity, Hallam moves to Edinburgh, penniless. But that’s OK, because the kid not only has a knack for finding janitor’s closets or crawl spaces in which to sleep, he can also talk his way into a job. The day after he arrives, he spots Kate (Sophia Myles), a radiant woman who could be Mummy’s twin. He follows her and sneaks into the employees’ entrance of the hotel where she works. Serendipitously, Kate is the HR manager; seconds later, Hallam is hired as a kitchen drudge.
That’s not the only luck Hallam has. Naturally, he follows Kate home, and lets himself in to her flat when she’s not there. When she is, he finds a convenient skylight from which to watch her. (Hallam has a thing for rooftops.) But when he takes a break during one of his shifts and explores the hotel, Hallam finds something even better: a clock tower, with enough space to make a nice studio and a perfect sightline into Kate’s bedroom. Aww, she bites her toenails and kickboxes! Whoa, now she’s getting banged hard—anywhere and everywhere, and by their married boss, too. Of course, Hallam doesn’t care for this, and he tries his hand at blackmail.
Do you like him yet? You won’t care for the other characters, either; with the exception of Hallam’s understandably curmudgeonly kitchen trainer, everyone is cold, uncharismatic, and unsympathetically fucked up. Based on Peter Jinks’ novel, the final installment of Mackenzie’s “sex trilogy” (preceded by 2005’s Asylum and 2003’s dreary Young Adam) is so strenuously edgy it’s tiresome. Bell, so sweet in Billy Elliot, hasn’t exactly been a charmer in his adult roles, choosing characters in Jumper and now Mister Foe who are downright irritating and unsympathetic. Yet here Hallam’s crimes are presented as mere antics—his first night on his own is a montage of him wandering seedy alleys and being mistakenly chased by cops in a downpour—and he’s apparently such an irrepressible, irresistible scamp that older birds can’t help but bed him.
More annoying is Mackenzie’s overly obvious musical cues, with precious indie tracks from artists such as U.N.P.O.C., James Yorkston, and Franz Ferdinand spelling out Hallam’s every emotion. Mister Foe does turn intriguingly dark at the end—Hinds, always a compelling presence, finally becomes human when his character reveals a devastating secret—but the subsequent jump to Hallam’s redemption is more like a gigantic leap. As his misery is alleviated, yours is further goaded.