I confess that my initial interest in seeing Wetlands was to test myself. Having grown up a tomboy, my childhood was rich with experiences of proving I could withstand things other girls thought too gross or ghastly, be it horror movies or spitting contests. So when this German coming-of-age comedy roared out of Sundance with critics declaring it "the most WTF, NSFW movie of the year," I--on some level--took seeing it as not only part of my job as a critic, but also another exciting schoolyard challenge.
If you've heard of Wetlands, you either know it because of the Charlotte Roche novel on which it's based, or because of the deeply disgusting content therein. If you want your stomach tested, Wetlands will not disappoint. But beyond gross-out scenes involving menstrual blood, copious spurts of semen, and an angry (and literal) asshole, there's a purpose. Beneath thick, putrid layers of filth, director David Wnendt has made a compelling and complex portrait of girlhood. I'll step you through the film's grossest moments to illustrate why they matter.
Wetlands follows the rocky and, at times, repulsive journey of 18-year-old Helen Memel (the fearless, funny and flawless Carla Juri). The product of a broken home, Helen's teen rebellion is channeled against all that her mother holds dear, which means the sanctity and sanity of her vagina. Helen gleefully experiments with sex and drugs, but also makes her body a biological experiment, reveling in bad hygiene. But when a shaving accident lands her in the hospital with an anal fissure, Helen strives to bring love into her life through a flirtation with a male nurse, and a childish scheme to reunite her divorced parents.
Now to the grisly bits.
Some spoilers for Wetlands lie ahead, but I'm careful to avoid major ones that would ruin the experience. Also, the movie can be tough, so if you are a squeamish person, bail now.
Helen's Hemorrhoids and Angry AssholeWhat Happens: In the film's opening moments, Helen zings down a street on a skateboard, barefoot and picking at her butt. She explains she has relentless hemorrhoids. Later, their pain is made worse when a sloppy shave job slashes Helen's anus. We're spared a look at both of the above, but the drops of blood and this look of shock (above) are more than enough to jolt viewers.
Why It Matters: Wetlands is being praised for being a movie that dares to give a girl's coming-of-age story the gross-out comedy treatment. But Helen takes your humped apple pie, and raises you a seminal slice of pizza. We'll get to that. The first tip to audiences that this is not your typical girlhood tale lies in Helen's hemorrhoids. No coveted ensembles or impossibly cool friends for her. Instead she has hemorrhoids, a dirty secret she's quick to share, telling us she is not the lady society would wish her to be. And while she may cave to contemporary shaving trends, this too had a dirty anecdote that involves a taboo sexual tryst.