When we meet Chanel (played by Taiana Tully), the lead of “Water Like Fire,” she is striving to get through each day and nurture an inner healing that needs to take place. Not only is Chanel carrying the weight of losing both her parents, her brother Caleb (played by Randall Galius Jr.) is a drug fiend who wanders the streets. Chanel keeps herself busy at work and in the presence of friends who are a positive influence. She also turns to surfing, which replays rich memories from her childhood. Suddenly, Caleb hits rock-bottom (though apparently not for the first time) and Chanel is faced with caring for him at his low point.
Mitchel Viernes’ “Water Like Fire” is a film that understands what it feels like to grieve. Specifically, how grief can turn your world into a vacant dreamscape that you feel detached from. It’s a sad film, but also a lovely, poetic work. I never found the film’s fervent characters or the pain they endure to be depressing. If anything, I felt a gratitude for the emotional frankness on display. Viernes’ film made me cry a lot and not, because I recognized the transitory and earth shaking moments from my own life and appreciated the honesty on display.
From the first frames, the imagery and score casts a spell, as do the immediacy of the characters.
Tully makes Chanel an ethereal figure who tenderness and willingness to be in good company just barely cloaks the hardship she carries within. Seeing Tully in this back-to-back with another HIFF title, “Aloha Surf Hotel,” provides a striking contrast.
Likewise, I remember Randall Galius Jr. from last year’s “Stoke,” a Big Island-set indie comedy that offered him a great comic/dramatic showcase. To get right to it- Tully is very good here but as heartfelt as her work is, the film belongs to Galius Jr., whose fierce performance shapes a haunting character.
As written by Viernes and Josiah Simpson, “Water Like Fire” is a rare Oahu-made indie with a true soulfulness, portraying that difficult moment we all face, when we realize, in the absence of our parents, we are now the adult, faced with making the “grown-up” life decisions we dread.
Viernes is also the film’s director of photography, which is remarkable, as the cinematography is superb. There’s a precision to the imagery, as well as the overall production design (likewise, the editing and sound design is sharp). Another valuable asset is the rapturous score is by Gian Marco Castro.
There have been many films that suggest that speak of the art of surfing as a spiritual experience, but few have visualized it like this. Early on, Chanel goes surfing and Viernes utilizes all the cinematic tools available to create her mind while one with the ocean. This is surfing as a sensual immersion with the pulse of the Earth.
There’s one cliches on hand that stands out, though it’s only worth mentioning because of how amusing it is: when Caleb scans his nearly empty fridge for food and bravely takes a thoughtless swig from a milk carton, no one who has ever seen a movie will be surprised when he gags and spits it right out. You know when someone chugs milk from a container found in a neglected fridge, it’s always going to be sour.
At the mid-point, Chanel comes to a personal crossroads and finds an answer in the form of a song that returns to her at exactly the right moment. I won’t describe it, but the film illustrates, in a lovely moment, how music connects to another time.
“Water Like Fire” avoids outright melodrama by not over-explaining either Chanel or Caleb’s struggles. The strength of the performances and the director’s hand is so strong, the movie doesn’t need to inundate with more backstory than necessary.
It’s a melancholy work but not depressing- there is hope here. In different ways, Chanel and Caleb are dealing with grief and finding the will to keep living. “Water Like Fire” is valuable for being a strong example of a locally made independent drama but also as an impactful plea for compassion and rehabilitation.
Water Like Fire is now playing at the 40th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival.