Water Lilies progresses like the slowcore songs of Mojave 3 and Red House Painters, its ethereal narrative marked neither by emotional outbursts nor coy absences, but by gradual rises and falls, subtle yet devastating crescendos and diminuendos. Such stylistics seem perfectly suited to its story of burgeoning adolescence amongst three French girls, each of them affiliated with the same synchronized swimming organization and struggling to understand their own sexual desires. As the girls flit between boys (and each other), the film effectively conveys the awkward transition between homo-sociality and homosexuality: that sense of teenage curiosity that doesn’t have a predetermined path or destination.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Céline Sciamma, the film feels remarkably assured in its handling of emotion and desire, never resorting to overly emphatic trauma or snarky anti-emotionalism. Unlike Juno, which denies its characters any of the fevers or uncertainties of being a teenager, replacing them with detached irony and overly-thought-out dialogue unsuited to their age, Water Lilies lingers on its characters’ hesitations and empathizes with the overbearing sense of risk and self-doubt so symptomatic of adolescence.