Dir: Przemyslaw 'Shemie' Reut. US. 2002. 85mins.
Neither documentary nor fully fledged drama, Paradox Lake is cinema verite at its most infuriating. Shemie Reut's experimental feature is for the most part tedious and trying, yet its terrifically clever final act hints at what it might have been. It's one of those independent movies that could warrant a Hollywood remake, just to cleanse it of its cinematic and thematic pretensions. Buyers, unfortunately, won't stick it out to the end and its commercial prospects are highly limited. It will flourish on the festival circuit however, where selectors will appreciate its honourable intentions more than audiences will respond to it.
The film is set in a camp for autistic children in upstate New York, the very camp where Reut worked for a summer in 1998 as a counsellor while searching for a topic for a movie. A year later he returned with two actors, Matt Wolf and Phe Caplan, who trained to be real counsellors in the camp, and shot the bulk of the movie which is essentially composed of their improvisations while at work with their unusual charges. Other scenes were shot at the camp the following summer and still others in New York City.
Reut shot on Super 16mm but experimented with other formats such as 16mm, 35mm, super 8, miniDV, VHS, computer animation and in one scene endoscopic medical video. The result is the mish-mash such a free-wheeling procedure would suggest. While it's fascinating to observe the children's behaviour, it is never fully integrated into the fabric of the story, which itself is clearly not Reut's priority. Wolf plays a young New Yorker who is diagnosed as suffering from acute stress and ordered to rest by his doctor. Anxious to escape his overbearing mother, he flees the city and volunteers as a counsellor at the camp.
He is put in charge of two boys Rob and Wayne, who like most kids in the unit cannot speak. They communicate in a way the counsellors cannot understand. Matt takes to the children and they to him, although he clashes with other counsellors whose methods are far from sensitive. He has a brief affair with another counsellor Rachel (Caplan) but, even when that is over, he finds himself forging a bond with Jessica (Jessica Fuchs), a 12 year-old whom Rachel looks after. Matt realises that Jessica's fondness for recreating fairy tales is a method of communication with him. What he doesn't realise is the secret she is trying to communicate.
The Matt/Jessica relationship doesn't kick in until at least half way through, a blunder since this is the heart of the matter and the revelation it generates is both surprising and touching. Only through Jessica does Reut's obvious fascination with autism and its mysteries finally, and I mean finally, reach the audience. For the record, the film marks the last performance of the late Jason Miller, playing a tiny role as one of the camp's leaders. Miller was an Oscar nominee for playing Father Karras in The Exorcist and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of That Championship Season.
Prod co: Red Reel Pictures, Next Media, Sacs Films
Prods: Ken Kushner, Przemyslaw Reut
Scr: Wieslaw Saniewski, Przemyslaw Reut
Prod des: Christine Hamer
Mus: Maciej Staniecki
Main cast: Matt Wolf, Phe Caplan, Jessica Fuchs, Ernie Jurez, John Gelin, Jaffa Jane Levy