Directed by Neal Jimenez, Michael Sternberg. Starring Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes, William Forsythe, Helen Hunt, Elizabeth Peña, William Allen Young, Grace Zabriskie, Fay Hauser. (1992, R, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., May 22, 1992
Few American movies in recent memory have the emotional integrity of The Waterdance, a film about paraplegics trying to make sense of it all while convalescing in a rehab hospital. Inspired by co-director and screenwriter Jimenez's real-life experiences (he became disabled in 1987), The Waterdance recounts the struggle of a young writer who wakes up one morning and finds himself flat on his back on a gurney, paralyzed after a freak hiking accident. It's the stuff of 101 television movies, but you've seldom seen it depicted as honestly and frankly as it is here. Eschewing sensation and high drama, The Waterdance instead embraces humor and pathos with an effortless simplicity. Although Jimenez's alter ego Joel Garcia is the film's focus, those around him are no less integral to its depiction of the human condition in a place where people try to put the pieces -- both physical and mental -- back together again. The performances are nothing less than extraordinary. Stoltz, an actor who has seldom exhibited anything but genial blandness, uses this temperament to good effect here as Joel, a man who tempers the bitterness he feels over what's happened to him with benign acceptance. Snipes and Forsythe are both superb as the two fellow travelers in wheelchairs whom Joel befriends in the ward; their emoting is so real you often forget they're actors. As equally -- if not more -- affecting is Hunt's performance as Joel's married girlfriend, a compassionate woman who finds she can't say or do the right thing in an unwinnable situation. (Her lovemaking scene with Stoltz behind drawn curtains is a thing of poignancy and sensuality.) Like Jodie Foster, Hunt exhibits an intelligence that can cut through the densest of emotions; hopefully, this film will bring her the roles she's long deserved. And if the film's direction, script, and performances weren't excellent enough, Michael Convertino's jazzy score fits its tone perfectly. Seemingly coming out of the blue in yet another summer of the sequel, The Waterdance may be a small fish in a big pond, but what a catch it is.