Critics could be recently heard emerging from The Pool dismissing Chris Smith’s minimalist India-set drama with words like “paint-by-numbers” and “meh.” I give it more credit than that, if not much more. Best known for the condescending documentary American Movie (the one about the Wisconsin director that everybody unthinkingly laughed at a decade ago), Smith exculpates himself here with a compassionate tale about Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), a country adolescent working in Goa. The requisite symbol of Venkatesh’s dreams is the artificial watering hole of a stern, wealthy man (Indian cinema legend Nana Patekar) who eventually hires him as a gardener, bringing him closer to the pool and coveted daughter Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan). Venkatesh soon begins to debate whether to accept her father’s offer to send him to school, or stay put to help the younger and equally impoverished Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah).
Descriptions of The Pool will surely reference neorealism and Satyajit Ray, though Smith’s aesthetic amounts to practical handheld master shots and modestly lush cinematography emphasizing verdant foliage and the dusty haze of city streets. It’s a style that evokes an unromanticized naturalism compared to the tourist brochure photography of, say, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it’s also in the service of a fairly elementary fable that even at 98 minutes feels long. Smith and co-writer Randy Russell provide mysterious touches (a story about ghost possession) and nicely subdued portraits of family strife (the pool as the former site of tragedy) in an attempt to counterbalance their dedication to the clichés of “unassuming cinema” — “Would you grow like the garden?” — that never achieve the toughness of a similar effort like this year’s earlier Chop Shop.
Opens September 3 at Film Forum