American documentary filmmaker Chris Smith’s The Pool has been sitting on the shelf for over five years now, having won a Special Jury Prize way back at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Thankfully, it now finally receives a limited released in the UK this Friday, and has definitely been worth the wait. An uneducated 18-year-old named Venkatesh works in Panjim, the capital of the Indian state of Goa, making a meagre living as a hotel cleaner. Sending back his scant earning to his mother and siblings in the country, and living a world away from the bustling metropolis that is Delhi, there isn’t much in the way of a future for him.
One day, he chances upon a hidden paradise of sorts in the form of immaculately-kept garden and swimming pool in the back of a holiday property owned by a wealthy businessman. He forms an innocent, if obsessive, curiously about the place and sits, voyeur-like, from a tree in the adjacent garden, constantly watching over the grounds. His interest isn’t lost on the owner, who invites him to come and work for him as a part-time gardener. The two soon bond and the homeowner develops a paternal interest in his young employee, while Venkatesh grows close to the man’s older teenage daughter, Ayesha.
Along with Venkatesh’s younger companion Jhangir, the trio hang out around the city and become firm friends, despite their socially-conflicting worlds. Smith (best known for 1999’s hilarious chronicling of amateur filmmaking gone awry in American Movie) hasn’t betrayed the style with which he made his name, and his unobtrusive camera roams around the characters and landscape, managing to find an everyday beauty in the dilapidated surroundings. The lack of any noticeable artifice is one of the most appealing aspects of the film, and the non-professional child actors, all of whom are really fantastic, add to this authenticity.
The Pool is a gentle, leisurely-told tale which strenuously avoids anything resembling even the slightest trace of melodrama, and it manages to find moving moments through subtle observation. Jhangir (seven years younger than his friend) is seen working in a variety of drudgingly menial jobs throughout, but he attacks his work in a dogged and fuss-free fashion, offering a quietly heart-breaking glimpse of a child forced to take the unenviable mantle of adult and provider.
Smith ends things on a pleasingly optimistic note, without betraying his character’s motivations or the restriction placed upon them in that milieu, having delivered a wonderfully unaffected and poignant coming-of-age slice of docu-realism. Owing to its tiny distribution window, it’s a shame The Pool will draw only a small, select crowd of cinemagoers. It’s clearly one of the year’s best and is an entirely worthy comparison with the works of Smith’s US contemporaries who are covering that terrain, Raman Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt.
For more info on Chris Smith’s The Pool, visit the film’s website at thepoolfilm.com.