Wetlands and its gynecologically obsessed heroine Helen (Carla Juri) is the answer to every post-Porky’s boner parade of the past few decades. Forget the apple pie and Poindexter panty raids, and even the slyly subversive prostate massages accorded to Seann William Scott in 2000’s Road Trip. No bodily fluid is off limits to Helen’s prying fingers, eyes, and tongue.
Coming-of-age stories for teen girls in the recent past have tended toward the dramatic, if not downright traumatic; look at Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (which is told through the lens of boys, anyway). Far fewer are the rebels, like Billie Jean and her rallying cry of “Fair is fair!” or The Fabulous Stains’ sneers. These are all equally important and valid expressions of teen girls’ lives, but recent entries like Wetlands and We Are The Best! are refreshingly sweet in their own strange ways. (The tragically under-seen Norwegian film Turn Me On, Dammit!—about a sexually curious 15-year-old girl named Alma—is light years ahead of American sex comedies, no matter the gender.)
The very premise of Wetlands is enough to make some would-be viewers blanche. Laid up in the hospital after trying to shave her own anus, which in turn aggravated her hemorrhoids, Helen has two goals: one, to seduce her hot nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski), and two, to reunite her woefully dysfunctional divorced parents (Meret Becker and Axel Milberg). This short but simple narrative is plumped up by the yarns Helen spins for Robin’s amusement, which are carefully calculated to portray her as outrageously gross and uninhibited, and the feverish dreams she has at night, which provide a glimpse of her subconscious. The adventures she relates, true or not, go beyond smoking cigarettes in the school parking lot and well into outlandish, funny, and stomach-turning scenarios, like sharing used tampons with a girlfriend, “hygiene” experiments that involve disgusting toilet seats, and getting her vulva shaved by an older coworker wearing a miner’s headlamp. Small details, like how she decided to get sterilized rather than carry on her family lineage of female neurosis and psychological damage, are expanded upon in her dreams, and snippets of memories show a serious-looking young Helen (Clara Wunsch) watching her parents come together and fall apart.
On one hand, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the audience is given the opportunity to psychoanalyze Helen; most male coming-of-age stories that emphasize sex and comedy don’t bother to dip beyond the surface of their lurid high jinks—hey, boys will be boys! On the other hand, Wetlands and Helen herself are all the richer for this examination. Working from a strong script he cowrote with Claus Falkenberg and Sabine Pochhammer, director David Wnendt offers a lively take on well-read source material. While Charlotte Roche’s international bestseller often reads like a litany of perversions, the movie is dynamic and crackling with humor. Tracking shots of Helen skateboarding (especially one shot of her going down the hospital hallway, her gown exposing her backside) collude with sunny, wide-open spaces, colorful druggy adventures, and the pools and bathtubs of Helen’s subconscious. The soundtrack makes great use of songs by Peaches, the mistress of fucking the pain away, and Thee Headcoatees (specifically “Come Into My Mouth,” which is a wonderfully twisted mix of girl-group vocals, swaggering garage guitars, and explicit lyrics).
Juri is fantastic as Helen, with a sweet smile that belies whatever is about to come out of (or come into) her mouth at any moment. Her long fingers are just as expressive as her face, which is important since she’s always using them in creative ways. Wetlands is wonderfully filthy and wildly perverse, occasionally funny, and even a little sad. It’s also gross, though it couldn’t hurt for viewers to examine why the same culture that finds menstrual blood icky bestows an Oscar nomination on Leonardo DiCaprio for playing a character who gets anally penetrated by a lit candle for pleasure. Wetlands makes the internal external; the secret, scary bits of female anatomy are on display in a way that isn’t meant to be particularly titillating to the male gaze. Like Amy Poehler, Helen doesn’t “fucking care if you like it.” In fact, she hopes you don’t.