Mermaids… they aren’t just the subject of a beloved Disney film or early 20th Century freak shows. They’re an almost inexplicably popular human myth that refuses to disappear. To this day, there are women who dream of performing as mermaids and shows dedicated to the images of women with fish bodies swimming in water tanks. Why does this still fascinate us? Why do women continue to pursue this fantasy? Why should we care? That’s the subject of director Ali Weinstein’s unique new documentary ‘Mermaids’. The only thing predictable about her answers is how consistently surprising they prove to be.
The film starts in a manner that one might expect a more conventionally fetishistic and silly film on the subject would – with ethereal slow-motion shots of beautiful women swimming in mermaid costumes. That’s what most folks will expect when they sign up for the movie, so Weinstein doesn’t hold back. She luxuriates in the surreal and beautiful imagery with haunting, ethereal music playing in the background to add to the audience’s hypnosis. Then the tone changes. The location isn’t some far-off fantasyland, but a performance for half drunk Sacramento viewers in a dive bar. The scene becomes startlingly human in an instant, even a little cheesy and sleazy. This isn’t some fairy tale brought to life, but a vaguely pervy tourist trap. So much for dreams. After bursting that bubble, Weinstein starts talking to the women who decided to become mermaids and her film becomes far more fascinating.
While ‘Mermaids’ does indulge in some of the mythological history of these creatures and reasons behind our continued cultural fascination, it’s not really a Mermaids 101 history lesson. (Thank effing god, by the way.). Instead, the filmmaker focuses on the lives that led these women to embracing the fantasy, as well as beautifully filming them in ways that let their fairy tale dreams come true while their voiceovers spill out painful realities. At first, she speaks to models who talk about how this underwater dancing job allows them to live out some half forgotten childhood dreams. Then she digs deeper.
It shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that Weinstein discovered many of the women who choose to play mermaids professionally landed in that job after some sort of trauma or struggle. What’s refreshing is how the filmmaker never treats her subjects as freaks served up for mockery. She cares and through that empathy finds humanity. There’s a transitioning woman named Julz whose mermaid fantasies were always tied to a desire to embrace her true gender (with all the potent emotions that implies). There’s a delightfully goofy Harlem resident named Cookie who’s wheeled around in a Mermaid parade by her husband and who discovered this pasttime as recovery for some horrendous trauma. There’s a reunion for women who played mermaids 50 years ago. There’s a mermaid wedding. There’s an interview with the man who made the mermaid outfit for ‘Splash’. All are eccentric, all share a certain childlike glee in embracing their old fantasies. Most importantly, all of them are beautifully human.
‘Mermaids’ isn’t a movie for everyone, but it’s likely a movie for anyone who would be interested in a documentary about grown women who want to be mermaids. The film delivers a pleasant mixture of sadness, beauty and snickering humor. Thankfully, it also casts very little judgment. Ali Weinstein clearly loves and is fascinated by her subjects and enjoys digging to their core as much as she loves photographing them in romantic ways that let them live as real mermaids for a few minutes. It’s a kind of magical, and a bizarre cinematic experience worth a look if only because there’s nothing else like it. Ali Weinstein created something special here, and even if it only works for a similar brand of excluded eccentrics as those who appeared before her cameras, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the weirdoes of the world, especially when they embrace themselves.